Living History for Developmental Evaluation

Developmental Evaluation (DE) is an approach to supporting the evolution and development of an innovation. This means not only helping guide where an innovation is going but understanding where it is now and where it has been. Just like human development, an innovation is as much a product of its past as it is the present decisions and that past can help inform the strategy for moving forward. But how do we properly account for the past and present context in understanding what comes next? This is where The Living History method comes in.

The Living History method comprises a set of data collection, sensemaking, and design strategies that come together to reflect on how a project comes into being, develops a focus, and evolves up to the present context. It helps provide the ‘backstory’ to the present situation and provides a means of developing a baseline – another key part of a DE.

Why does knowing this matter? Taking a Living History of a program helps surface the path dependencies of a program or innovation. Path dependencies can include those habits of mind that form, patterns of behaviour, and general routines that can develop within a complex environment and consciously or unconsciously shape the context in which decisions are made. By understanding what these patterns are, we can better prepare to address them as the program unfolds.

It’s helpful to the biases and mental models that we hold in guiding our decisions to better account for them both when things work well, but also to help understand how things didn’t work out.

To borrow from the image above: the Living History method helps you use the data collected from preparing the climb, starting up to base camp, and setting the groundwork (the trials, failures, and victories) to initiate the climb as well as the data from the actual ascent to the summit.

Introducing the method

The Living History method is something we developed to ‘backfill’ much of the information that is necessary to understand the present context of a program. Many evaluators do this kind of work with informational interviews, document reviews, and site visits, however, the means in which this data is collated and made sense of isn’t always systematic, nor is it done in a manner that recognizes complexity (which is the space in which DE is meant to be employed).

A Living History involves building that historical narrative that has been constructed by program developers (founders, staff, stakeholders, etc..) and the activities that contribute to this narrative. It draws together these ‘stories’ from the data into an understanding of the present. This present space is where the existing narrative and current construction of the program (‘what is happening now?‘) comes together. It’s also space where strategy is developed and initiated to shape what is to come (‘where are we going and how are we going to get there?‘).

Below is an image that demonstrates this process.

Taking a Living History

A Living History can encompass many different data gathering techniques. Four of the most useful are:

  1. Document review. A thorough review of foundational documents that might include things like the initial application(s) for funding, ‘pitch decks’ used to generate funds or interest, program and policy manuals, staff reviews, board meeting minutes, evaluations, and annual reports (to boards, funders, stakeholders, etc.). Some programs may have an early program logic model or Theory of Change that can be examined. These can give insight into the planning structure, theories, and reasons for establishing the program.
  2. Interviews. Connecting with the program founders, board members (past and present), investors (and funders), as well as leaders involved in the initiative is critical. Having conversations with these people will help surface both explicit and tacit knowledge held by those that helped shape the program. These interviews can be critical in understanding the logic, political context, and social dynamics that underpin the direction of the organization. It is useful to determine not only the direction taken, but the directions considered. The reason is that these ‘unexplored paths’ may linger in the minds of people and serve as a source of tension or inspiration in moving forward.
  3. Site visits. It is helpful to understand that programs – even those that are virtual such as a website or app — originate in the physical world somewhere. Site visits, when possible, help gather information about organizational culture, physical resources, and relational barriers and facilitators. Take the example of the organization that starts up as a maker space in a garage and then evolves to a large corporate high-rise office. Is the culture that was established at the start-up maintained at a different scale or abandoned? We’ve seen this with organizations that began as a start-up, grew enormously, and then abandoned the culture that was created at startup for a more conservative corporate one despite holding on to the belief that things had not changed. Only by pointing out (seeing) the manner in which things physically changed (e.g., open space vs. closed spaces, size and shape of offices) was this able to be pointed out. Further, such visits can help determine developmental milestones such as large investments of capital.
  4. Timeline. A timeline is a simple method of connecting activities — actions + decisions — together in a visual means. This helps determine and organize data about what was done, but also when it was done. This can make an enormous difference in understanding things like time lags and exploring cause-and-consequence connections between actions, reactions, and other effects.

The Role of Sensemaking

Living History is not complete without sensemaking. Sensemaking is required because, like most interesting stories, innovating through complexity is messy and full of contradictions, gaps in logic, and remarkable things that can only be understood by sitting together with all the data in one place. These emergent properties — coherence that forms from diverse sources of information as part of the process of (self) organization — are what make a program a ‘whole’ and not just the ‘sum of the parts’.

Sensemaking is collaborative, discursive, and involves debate, reflection, and a process of drawing conclusions and forming hypotheses based on data and experience. It is the process of taking the strangeness of seeing things in chunks and putting them together. What comes from this process, which is a key part of Developmental Evaluation and design, is a ‘sense’ of what happened, what is going on, and what options might work next.

It helps you understand where you and your program stand now.

Moving forward (and backward)

The Living History method doesn’t end with sensemaking, it also is carried forward.

Developing a project dashboard for innovation evaluation is a helpful means to pull together the data collected from the past, the present, and then populating it as the program evolves. The Living History method views history as being co-constructed as the program evolves and thus thrives on having new data about the present (which is always a second away from being the past) added to the overall corpus of data.

New data, when combined with what has already been collected, can provide new insights into the bigger picture. As data is added and time passes, it is possible that new patterns will emerge, which can be insightful for making decisions. This data, collected now and going forward, will later be recombined as part of an ongoing sensemaking process.

A Living History can also provide a means to document the activities that have taken place up to the present moment by systematically, although retrospectively, capturing (mostly existing) data to show what has happened before, which can be useful for organizations and programs who are starting their evaluations later than they would have liked to.

Consider the Living History approach with your evaluation. By looking at the past you might find yourself better prepared to go forward. We can help.

Photo by Aaron Benson on Unsplash

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