Developmental Evaluation, Learning and Innovation

What does it mean to undertake a developmental evaluation (DE)?

DE is simply another way to say evaluation for learning and innovation. That’s really all it is in practice, although anyone looking to do DE might want to look a little closer to see if it really is the right approach for them.

In this post we look a little closer to help you understand what it means to do evaluation for innovation and what developmental evaluation has to do with it.

Understanding Innovation

Innovation is a word that can mean much and requires clarification when it’s used because of this. When we speak of innovation, we refer to this definition of learning transformed into value through design.

Developmental evaluation is a concept that was first put forward by Michael Quinn Patton through many books, articles, and other teachings. It’s now become a popular approach within social innovation and the public sector.

DE is often referred to as a means to strategic learning because rather than assume the conditions of whatever is being evaluated (e.g., program, policy) are stable, it assumes some level of complexity. This is dramatically different from what most other forms of evaluation do where the assumption is the ‘thing’ being evaluated is stable – it’s the users of that thing that might change.

Because DE is focused on learning it assumes that there will be some kind of change with the actual process of learning itself on the way from one state to the next. 

Understanding Design’s Role in Innovation

What DE does not do well is account for the role of design in supporting innovation. If we come back to the definition of innovation presented earlier, design is really the means by which innovation occurs. In most of the literature on DE the matter of design is not discussed much, if at all. 

With much of DE the assumption is that those doing DE know how to take what they learn and transform it into value. From our experience, this is an assumption that rarely holds up. The reasons are many, but most central to this is that most people think of design as beginning from a standing start when in practice much of what do when we innovate takes place from a moving position.

We sometimes refer to this as developmental design, but more appropriately expand how we see this relationship between DE and design as something called Design-driven Evaluation. In this case, design and evaluation are intimately connected and the processes of using both to mutually inform one another are embedded in the innovation process. 

Understanding Evaluation’s Role in Design & Innovation

Evaluation is the means to provide the necessary feedback to contribute to innovation. Evaluation determines the quality of the design in achieving its purpose. If your design is meant to change behaviour, evaluation is the means to assess whether that happens and to what degree.

Evaluation also is the means to document the circumstances in which this takes place to help you assess whether the implementation of your innovation goes as intended. Without evaluation, your innovation is a wish, not a result. Evaluation is the means to determine what the results of your innovation are

Evaluation is also the means to assess the quality of your design work. It’s one thing to develop something and put it out in the world, but is it any good? Is it fit for purpose? Many innovations fail to deliver value because they don’t provide the means to learn about the quality of the design itself. They don’t achieve a positive impact because they were never designed to in the first place. 

To innovate is to learn and to learn is to evaluate. Design is what ties them all together. 

Next time you’re looking to embark on a new program of activity, create a new product, it’s worth considering how these all go together and whether DE alone will help you to get there. 

For help in generating powerful design-driven approaches to innovation and evaluation, contact us. We can help

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