Complexity Science for Evaluators

Strategy and Complexity

This article draws on a piece originally shared as an invited post on the American Evaluation Association’s AEA365 blog. AEA365 is a daily blog that shares tips, tricks and resources for professional evaluators worldwide and is focused on complexity science for evaluators.

Our work at Cense brings together complexity science and design together with developmental evaluation into something loosely called developmental design, which is about making decisions in the face of changing conditions.

Lesson Learned: At the heart of developmental evaluation is the concept of complexity and innovation. Complexity is a word that we hear a lot of, but might not fully know what it means or how to think about it in the context of evaluation.

For social programs, complexity exists:

… where there are multiple, overlapping sources of input and outputs

… that interact with systems in dynamic ways

… at multiple time scales and organizational levels

… in ways that are highly context-dependent

Rad Resources: Complexity is at the root of developmental evaluation. So for those who are new to the idea or new to developmental evaluation, here are 7 resources that might help you get your head around this complex (pun intended) concept:

  1. Getting to Maybe is a book co-written by our good friend Michael Quinn Patton and offers a great starting place for those working with communities and human services;
  2. Patton’s book Developmental Evaluation (ch 5 in particular) is, of course, excellent;
  3. The Plexus Institute is a non-profit organization that supports ongoing learning about complexity applications for a variety of settings;
  4. Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement has an excellent introduction page including an interview with Getting to Maybe co-author Brenda Zimmerman
  5. Ray Pawson’s new book The Science of Evaluation is a more advanced, but still accessible look at ways to think about complexity, programs and evaluation;
  6. Cameron Norman’s blog Censemaking has a library section with sources on systems thinking and complexity that include these and many more.
  7. The best short introduction to the concept is a video by Dave Snowden on How to Organize A Children’s Party that is a cheeky way to illustrate complexity that we use in our training and teaching with clients.

Complexity is part theory, part science and all about a way of seeing and thinking about problems. It doesn’t need to scare you and these resources can really help get you in the right mind-frame to tackle challenging problems and use evaluation effectively as a means of addressing them. It might be complex, but it’s fun.

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