Developmental Evaluation: A Short Introduction

Developmental Evaluation (DE) was first proposed by Michael Quinn Patton with the support of colleagues who have wrestled with the problem of dealing with complexity in human systems and the need to provide structured, useful, actionable information to make decisions to support innovation.

DE has been described as being akin to taking a classic ‘road trip’ where you have a destination, a planned route, but also a spirit of adventure and willingness to deviate when needed. DE is an approach to evaluation, not a specific method or tool, designed to support decision making for innovation. Innovation, in this case, is about the activities and decisions that allow an organization and its members to create value by design. The design may not turn out as expected or produce surprises, but it is part of an intentional act to create value through new thinking and action.

Ten things about what DE is and is not

Developmental evaluation (“DE” as it’s often referred to as), when used to support innovation, is about weaving design with data and strategy. It’s about taking a systematic, structured approach to paying attention to what you’re doing, what is being produced (and how), and anchoring it to why you’re doing it by using monitoring and evaluation data. DE helps to identify potentially promising practices or products and guide the strategic decision-making process that comes with innovation. When embedded within a design process, DE provides evidence to support the innovation process from ideation through to business model execution and product delivery.

There are a lot of misconceptions about what a DE is and what it is not and we thought it might be worth addressing ten of these to help provide a brief introduction to DE.

  1. DE is an approach to evaluation, not a method. Most standard methods and tools for evaluation can be used as part of a DE. Qualitative, quantitative, administrative, and ‘big’ data can all contribute to an understanding of a program when used appropriately. It is not something that you simply apply to a situation, rather it is an engaged process of refining how you think about the data you have, what data you collect, and how you make sense of it all and apply lessons from it in practice.
  2. DE is about evaluation for strategic decision-making. If the evaluation is not useful in making decisions about a program or service then is it not a DE. What is considered useful in decision-making is context-dependent, meaning that a DE must be tailored toward the specific situational needs of a program or a service.
  3. DE is not about product or service improvement, it’s about product and service development. It involves a shift in mindset from growth and ‘best practices’ to one of mindful, strategic, adaptative strategy and developmental design.
  4. DE is not separate from strategy, but a critical part of it. There must be close ties between those developing and implementing strategy and the evaluation team or evaluator. A bi-directional flow of information is required through regular, ongoing communications so that strategy informs the DE and the DE informs the strategy simultaneously.
  5. DE does not make things easier, but it can make things better. DE helps programs innovate, learn, and adapt more fully, but that isn’t always easy. A strong DE involves deep engagement with data, a commitment to learning, and a willingness to embrace (or at least accept) volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). This requires changing the way organizations work and interact with their programs, which requires time, energy, and sustained attention. However, the promise is that with the systematic attention and a methodology that is designed for VUCA, program leaders can put greater confidence in what DE generates than with standard approaches that assume a more linear, stable, set of conditions.
  6. DE can help document the innovation process. Through creating tools, processes, and decision-making structures to support innovation, DE also helps document the decisions and outcomes of those decisions. When people ask: “how did you get here?” DE provides some answers.
  7. DE does not eliminate the risks associated with VUCA. The adaptive strategy that DE is a part of can often be gamed can be a cop-out for those who do not want to make hard decisions. Strategy is not planning, it’s about “an integrated set of choices that determine where the firm should play and how it should win there” (Martin, 2014) and DE provides a means of building the data set and decision tools to support strategy.
  8. DE is not a panacea. Even with the mindset, appropriate decision-making structures, and a good design, DE is not going to solve the problems of innovation. It will give more systematic means to understand the process, outcomes, outputs, and impacts associated with an innovation, but it still means trials, errors, starts and stops, and the usual explorations that innovators need to experience. DE also requires sensemaking — a structured process of ‘making sense’ of the data that emerges from complex conditions. In these conditions, you can’t expect the data will yield obvious interpretations or conclusions, which is why a sensemaking process is necessary.
  9. Not everyone can do DE well. The popularity of DE in recent years has led to a surge in those claiming to be development evaluators. If you are looking for a DE specialist, consider their experience working with VUCA and complexity in particular. You will also want to find someone who understands strategy, group process, design principles, organizational behaviour, organizational sensemaking, and is an experienced evaluator. This last point means adhering to evaluation standards and potentially recruiting someone who has the Credentialed Evaluator (CE) designation to undertake the evaluation. There are many ways to be adaptive and utilization-focused in your evaluation that isn’t considered to be a DE, too.
  10. DE does not have to be complicated. While DE requires greater involvement of more aspects of an organization in its planning and execution, it doesn’t have to be an elaborate, consuming, or complicated endeavor. DE can be done simply on a small scale just as it can be a large, highly involved, participatory process done at a large scale. DE will scale to nearly any program situation. What makes a DE are the things stated above — things like mindset, organizational support, sensemaking

Developmental Evaluation is a powerful way to help innovators learn, demonstrate and showcase the efforts that go into making change happen, and to increase the capacity of your organization to evolve its mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets for innovation.

Are you interested in using DE and learning more about how your innovation — big or small — in your service, products, or systems? Contact us and we can show you what can be done to bring DE and its potential to your organization.


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