Setting Up for Developmental Evaluation Success

Our earlier series on Developmental Evaluation (DE) and its traps illustrated things to watch out for. While powerful and attractive, DE is not for everyone and requires a strong set up to be successful. In this article, we do just that: outline how to set yourself up for success in using DE.

Developmental Evaluation is a means to support the organic growth of a program or service operating in changing conditions by gathering data using a process to support strategic decision-making. Just like a tree exists in a complex environment of soil, water, sunlight, wind, and encounters with wildlife, so too do many of our programs. DE is a means to do that by bringing together data, strategy, and design.

We’ve outlined what DE is, and discussed four key traps that many organizations fall into when looking to use it to support innovation, adaptation, and program development. These traps are:

Let’s look at how we can avoid these traps and embrace growth in how we use evaluation to support our programs and operations.

Avoiding traps, embracing growth

Central to DE is the term development. It’s important to remind ourselves of developmental thinking, especially when considering another term: growth. I regard development and growth in the way we would look at a living system: it’s a progressive, non-linear, situational, and evolving activity that sustains life. Once development and growth stops, so does everything else. That’s why DE fits with designing for living systems; it treats your program context as something alive.

As we’ve written in other posts, there are three things you need to set up for DE that require a certain type of orientation: a mindset, a skillset, and a toolset.

If these are in place, here’s what to consider next:

  1. Lay the groundwork: A DE requires some initial socialization within your organization. While the fundamental concepts are relatively straightforward, people need time and space to integrate the developmental mindset into everyday work. Your people must understand that a DE is not a traditional business-as-usual way of evaluating things. It means checking our expectations and assumptions with our teams ahead of time and continuing to do check-ins throughout the process.
  2. Strategy / Planning: Setting up a plan for a DE is critical. This means aligning data-gathering, analysis and sensemaking, and strategic decision-making together. This combines aspects of a traditional plan – timelines, deliverables, resource allocations, etc. — with a more dynamic means of understanding the rhythm and pace of the project. A good strategy is to account for changes, time lags, and pauses, even if they may not happen. Unlike traditional planning, which views these as delays, DE planning would view them as part of the process. They should be expected, even if they can’t be predicted.
  3. Evaluate the evaluation. Ensuring that there is a link-up between the data gathering and the strategic decision-making and that it provides meaningful insights into what is happening is essential. This means creating a real culture of learning throughout the process. It’s more real-time, conversational, and attentive than a stand-back outside look at the operations of a particular program or activity. Keep asking: how are we doing?
  4. Evaluate like a designer. A design-driven approach to DE will yield the greatest benefits and best reflect the developmental, innovative contexts in which DE works best. Familiarize yourself with some simple design methods and tools and bring this into the evaluation. You’ll find it’s much easier to adapt, learn and grow using your evaluation data.

Set yourself up for success – by design — and you’ll be much more successful in taking advantage of a Developmental Evaluation.

We do this for our clients and can help you if needed. Let’s chat. Good luck!

Image Credit: Cameron Norman

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