A simple recipe for improving the odds of sustainability: A systems perspective

I have been to a lot of conferences that had many sessions on ways to assure program sustainability. There is also a lot of really good research literature on this topic. Also, sustainability is a topic that has been front and center in my own work of late.

Analyses and explanations of sustainability inevitably end up with some fairly elaborate discussions about what factors lead to sustainability, how the program is embedded in its context, and so on. I have no doubt that all these treatments of sustainability have a great deal of merit. I take them seriously in my own work. I think everyone should. That said, I have been toying with another, much simpler approach.

Almost every program I have ever evaluated had only one major outcome that it was after. Sure there are cascading outcomes from proximate to distal. (Outcome to waves of impact, if you like that phrasing better.) And of course many programs have many outcomes at all ranks. But in general the proximate outcomes, even if they are many, tend to be highly correlated. So in essence, there is only one.

What this means is that when a program is dropped into a complex system, that program is designed to move the entire system in the direction of attaining that one outcome. We know how systems work. If enough effort is put in, they can in fact be made to optimize a single objective. But we also know that success like that makes the system as a whole dysfunctional in terms of its ability to adapt to environmental change, meet the needs of multiple stakeholders, maintain effective and efficient internal operations, and so on. As I see it, that means that any effort to optimize one outcome will be inherently unstable. No need to look at the details.

My notion is that in order to increase the probability of sustainability, a program should pursue multiple outcomes that are as uncorrelated as possible. The goal should be joint optimization, at the expense of sub-optimizing any of the desired outcomes.

I understand the problems in following my idea. The greater the number of uncorrelated outcomes, the greater the need to coordinate across boundaries, and as I have argued elsewhere in this blog, that is exceedingly difficult. (Why do Policy and Program Planners Assume-away Complexity?)  Also, I am by no means advocating ignoring all that work that has been done on sustainability. Ignoring it is guaranteed to lead to trouble.

Even so, I think the idea I’m proposing has some merit. Look at the outcomes being pursued, and give some thought to how highly correlated they are. What we know about systems tells us that optimization of one outcome may succeed in the short term, but it will not succeed in the long term. Joint optimization of uncorrelated outcomes? That gives us a better fighting chance.

 

 

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Things to think about when observing programs from a systems perspective

A friend of mine (Donna Podems) is heading  up a project that involves providing a structure for a group of on-the-ground observers so they can apply a systems perspective to understanding what programs are doing and what they are accomplishing.  She asked me for a brain dump, which I happily provided.  What follows is by no means a systematic approach to looking at programs in terms of systems. It’s just a laundry list of ideas that popped into my head and flowed through my fingers. Below is a somewhat cleaned up version of what  sent her.

Hi Donna,

What follows is not a list of independent items. In fact I guarantee there are lots of connections. For instance, “redundancy” and “multiple paths” are not the same thing, but they are related. But time is tight, and I have a Greek meatball recipe to shop for, so let’s assume they are independent. Continue reading

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Depicting Complexity in 2-D

There is an interesting discussion going on in the Linked-In discussion group of the European Evaluation Society with respect to a question someone asked: How do linear models address the complexity in which we work? I can’t help but to weigh in. I also placed a link to this blog post on the EES discussion thread. My thoughts on this topic run in two directions.

1) Putting a lot of stuff in a model, and
2) What does it mean to “address complexity”?

Putting a Lot of Stuff in a Model

I am a big fan of information density. The more information that can be juxtaposed, the greater the amount of meaning that can be conveyed. The countervailing force to this inclination is that I’m also a big fan of information being readable. My solution is to think of rendering a model as an exercise in the joint optimization of two goals: Continue reading

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Drawing on Complexity to do Hands-on Evaluation (Part 3) – Turning the Wrench

Common Introduction to all Three Posts
What is the Contribution of Complexity to Evaluation?
Drawing from Research and Theory in Complexity Studies

Common Introduction to all Three Posts

This is the third of three blog posts I have been writing to help me understand how “complexity” can be used in evaluation. If it helps other people, great. If not, at least it helped me.

Part 1:  Complexity in Evaluation and in Studies on Complexity
In this section I talked about using complexity ideas as practical guides and inspiration for conducting an evaluation, and how those ideas hold up when looked at in terms of what is known from the study of complexity. It is by no means necessary that there be a perfect fit. It’s not even a good idea to try to make it a perfect fit. But the extent of the fit can’t be ignored, either.

Part 2: Complexity in Program Design
The problems that programs try to solve may be complex. The programs themselves may behave in complex ways when they are deployed. But the people who design programs act as if neither their programs, nor the desired outcomes, involve complex behavior. (I know this is an exaggeration, but not all that much. Details to follow.) It’s not that people don’t know better. They do. But there are very powerful and legitimate reasons to assume away complex behavior. So, if such powerful reasons exist, why would an evaluator want to deal with complexity? What’s the value added in the information the evaluator would produce? How might an evaluation recognize complexity and

Part 3: Turning the Wrench: Applying Complexity in Evaluation
This is where the “turning the wrench” phrase comes from in the title of this blog post1. Considering what I said in the first two blog posts, how can I make good use of complexity in evaluation? In this regard my approach to complexity is no different than my approach to ANOVA or to doing a content analysis of interview data. I want to put my hands on a tool and make something happen. ANOVA, content analysis and complexity are different kinds of wrenches. The question is which one to use when, and how.

Complex Behavior or Complex System?
I’m not sure what the difference is between a “complex system” and “complex behavior”, but I am sure that unless I try to differentiate the two in my own mind, I’m going to get very confused. From what I have read in the evaluation literature, discussions tend to focus on “complex systems”, complete with topics such as parts, boundaries, part/whole relationships, and so on. My reading in the complexity literature, however, makes scarce use of these concepts. I find myself getting into trouble when talking about complexity with evaluators because their focus is on the “systems” stuff, and mine is on the “complexity” stuff. In these three blog posts I am going to concentrate on “complex behavior” as it appears in the research literature on complexity, not on the nature of “complex systems”. I don’t want to belabor this point because the boundaries are fuzzy, and there is overlap. But I will try to draw that distinction as clearly as I can. Continue reading

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Drawing on Complexity to do Hands-on Evaluation (Part 2) – Complexity in Program Operation, Simplicity in Program Design

Common Introduction to all Three Posts
Why do Policy and Program Planners Assume Away Complexity?
How Can Evaluators Apply Complexity in a way that will Help Program Designers?

Common Introduction to all Three Posts
This is the second of three blog posts I have been writing to help me understand how given the reality of how programs are designed, “complexity” can be used in evaluation . If it helps other people, great. If not, at least it helped me.

Part 1:  Complexity in Evaluation and in Studies on Complexity
In this section I talked about using complexity ideas as practical guides and inspiration for conducting an evaluation, and how those ideas hold up when looked at in terms of what is known from the study of complexity. It is by no means necessary that there be a perfect fit. It’s not even a good idea to try to make it a perfect fit. But the extent of the fit can’t be ignored, either.

Part 2: Complexity in Program Design
The problems that programs try to solve may be complex. The programs themselves may behave in complex ways when they are deployed. But the people who design programs act as if neither their programs, nor the desired outcomes, involve complex behavior. (I know this is an exaggeration, but not all that much. Details to follow.) It’s not that people don’t know better. They do. But there are very powerful and legitimate reasons to assume away complex behavior. So, if such powerful reasons exist, why would an evaluator want to deal with complexity? What’s the value added in the information the evaluator would produce? How might an evaluation recognize complexity and still be useful to program designers?

Part 3: Turning the Wrench: Applying Complexity in Evaluation
This is where the “turning the wrench” phrase comes from in the title of this blog post1. Considering what I said in the first two blog posts, how can I make good use of complexity in evaluation? In this regard my approach to complexity is no different than my approach to ANOVA or to doing a content analysis of interview data. I want to put my hands on a tool and make something happen. ANOVA, content analysis and complexity are different kinds of wrenches. The question is which one to use when, and how.

Complex Behavior or Complex System?
I’m not sure what the difference is between a “complex system” and “complex behavior”, but I am sure that unless I try to differentiate the two in my own mind, I’m going to get very confused. From what I have read in the evaluation literature, discussions tend to focus on “complex systems”, complete with topics such as parts, boundaries, part/whole relationships, and so on. My reading in the complexity literature, however, makes scarce use of these concepts. I find myself getting into trouble when talking about complexity with evaluators because their focus is on the “systems” stuff, and mine is on the “complexity” stuff. In these three blog posts I am going to concentrate on “complex behavior” as it appears in the research literature on complexity, not on the nature of “complex systems”. I don’t want to belabor this point because the boundaries are fuzzy, and there is overlap. But I will try to draw that distinction as clearly as I can. Continue reading

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Drawing on Complexity to do Hands-on Evaluation (Part 1) – Complexity in Evaluation and in Studies in Complexity

This is the first of three blog posts I am writing to help me understand how “complexity” can be used in evaluation. If it helps other people, great. If not, at least it helped me.

Common Introduction to all Three Posts
Practicality and Theory

The Value and Dangers of Using Evaluation Program Theory
Complexity as an Aspect of Evaluation Program Theory

Appropriate but Incorrect Application of Scientific Concepts to Achieve Practical Ends

Continue reading

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Three Coming Blog Posts on Applying Complexity Behavior in Evaluation

During each of the first three weeks in January I will be publishing a blog post on how complexity can be applied in evaluation. They are not ready yet, but they are close. Below is the common introduction that I will be using for each of the posts.

Common Introduction to all Three Posts

Part 1:  Complexity in Evaluation and in Studies on Complexity
In this section will I talk about using complexity ideas as practical guides and inspiration for conducting evaluation, and how those ideas hold up when looked at in terms of what is known from the study of complexity. It is by no means necessary that there be a perfect fit. It’s not even a good idea to try to make it a perfect fit. But the extent of the fit can’t be ignored, either.

Part 2: Complexity in Program Design
The problems that programs try to solve may be complex. The programs themselves may behave in complex ways when they are deployed. But the people who design programs act as if neither their programs, nor the desired outcomes, involve complex behavior. (I know this is an exaggeration, but not all that much. Details to follow.) It’s not that people don’t know better. They do. But there are very powerful and legitimate reasons to assume away complex behavior. So, if such powerful reasons exist, why would an evaluator want to deal with complexity? What’s the value added in the information the evaluator would produce? How might an evaluation recognize complexity and still be useful to program designers?

Part 3: Turning the Wrench: Applying Complexity in Evaluation
Considering what I said in the first two blog posts, how can I make good use of complexity in evaluation? In this regard my approach to complexity is no different than my approach to ANOVA or to doing a content analysis of interview data. I want to put my hands on a tool and make something happen. ANOVA, content analysis and complexity are different kinds of wrenches. The question is which one to use when, and how.

Complex Behavior or Complex System?
I’m not sure what the difference is between a “complex system” and “complex behavior”, but I am sure that unless I try to differentiate the two in my own mind, I’m going to get very confused. From what I have read in the evaluation literature, discussions tend to focus on “complex systems”, complete with topics such as parts, boundaries, part/whole relationships, and so on. My reading in the complexity literature, however, makes scarce use of these concepts. I find myself getting into trouble when talking about complexity with evaluators because their focus is on the “systems” stuff, and mine is on the “complexity” stuff. In these three blog posts I am going to concentrate on “complex behavior” as it appears in the research literature on complexity, not on the nature of “complex systems”. I don’t want to belabor this point because the boundaries are fuzzy, and there is overlap. But I will try to draw that distinction as clearly as I can.

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A Complex System Perspective on Program Scale-up and Replication

I’m in the process of working up a presentation for the upcoming conference of the American Evaluation Association:. Successful Scale-up Of Promising Pilots: Challenges, Strategies, and Measurement Considerations. (It will be a great panel. You should attend if you can.) This is the abstract for my presentation:

Title: Complex System Behavior as a Lens to Understand Program Change Across Scale, Place, and Time
Abstract: Development programs are bedeviled by the challenge of transferability. Whether from a small scale test to widespread use, or across geography, or over time, programs do not work out as planned. They may have different consequences than we expected. They may have larger or smaller impacts than we hoped for. They may morph into programs we only dimly recognize. They may not be implemented at all. The changes often seem random, and indeed, in some sense they are. But coexisting with the randomness, a complex system perspective shows us the sense, the reason, the rationality in the unexpected changes. By thinking in terms of complex system behavior we can attain a different understanding of what it means to explain, or perhaps, sometimes to predict, the mysteries of transferability. That understanding will help us choose methodologies and interpret data. It will also give us new insight on program theory.

There will only be one slide in this presentation.

blog

Based on this slide I’m developing talking points. I know I’ll have to abbreviate it at the presentation, but I do want a coherent story to work from. A rough draft is below. Comments appreciated. Whack away. Continue reading

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Case Study Example for Workshop 18: Systems as Program Theory and as Methodology

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Case Study Example for Workshop 18: Systems as Program Theory and as Methodology: A Hands on Approach over the Evaluation Life Cycle

This case was developed for a workshop at the American Evaluation Association’s 2015 Summer Evaluation Institute.

Construction of the Case
This is the example we will use throughout this workshop to illustrate how knowledge of system behavior can be applied in evaluation. The example is hypothetical. I made it up to resemble a plausible evaluation scenario that we may face, but which is elaborated to make sure it contains all the elements needed to explain the topics in the workshop. I am sure that none of us (me included) have ever been involved in an evaluation that is as far reaching and in-depth as the example here. But I am sure that all of us have been involved in evaluations that are similar to parts of the example, and, if you are like me, I bet you have dreamed of being involved in an evaluation of the size and scope of the example.

There are three initiatives. One aimed at adults. One aimed at mothers and young children. One aimed at teens. Each initiative has several individual programs that share some common outcomes, and which also have some unique outcomes.

All three initiatives are deliberately implemented Continue reading

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Timelines, Critical Incidents and Systems: A Nice Way to Understand Programs

I have been involved in evaluating distracted driving programs for transportation workers. While working on the evaluations I developed an interesting way to understand how programs are acting and what they are doing. The method is based on a few principles, one set focusing on the nature of timelines and schedules, and the other on data collection.

Timelines and schedules
Timelines and schedules matter. These documents are constructed to meet a few objectives. They have to:

  • Provide a reasonable plan whose tasks can be executed.
  • Represent a reasonable correspondence between budget and work.
  • Satisfy customers desires for when the work will be completed, and for how much.

In a sense there is a conflict between the first two objectives and the third, resulting in overly optimistic assessments of budgets and timelines. That’s the direction of the bias in our estimates. Continue reading

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Complexity is about stability and predictability

Table of Contents

Complexity is About Stability and Predictability

Example 1: Attractors
Example 2: Strange Attractors
Example 3: Fractals
Example 4: Phase Transitions
Example 5: Logistic Maps
Example 6: Power Laws
Example 7: Cross Linkages
Example 8: Emergence

What Does All This Mean for Evaluators?

Example 1: Attractors
Example 2: Strange Attractors
Example 3: Power Laws
Example 4: Timeframes, Attractors, and Power Laws
Example 5: Emergence
Example 6: Fractals
Example 7: Phase Shifts

Acknowledgements

Complexity is About Stability and Predictability

Figure 1: Ban the Butterfly

Figure 1: Ban the Butterfly

I have been thinking about how complexity is discussed in evaluation circles. A common theme seems to be that because programs are complex we can’t generalize evaluation findings over space and time because of the inherent uncertainties that reside in complex systems. (Sensitive dependence on initial conditions, evolving environments, etc.) The more I think about the emphasis on instability and unpredictability, the less I like it. See figure 1. Ban the butterfly! Continue reading

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What is the relationship between path dependence and system stability? With explanation of why I care.

I realized it might help to explain what led me to ask this question in the first place. I submitted a proposal to AEA to talk about how traditional evaluation methods can be used in complex systems. Part of that explanation will have to involve understanding the CAS implications of stability in program impact across time and place. See the end of this post for that proposal.

I’m looking for some sources and opinions to help with a question that has been troubling me lately.  I’m struggling with the question of the relationship between path

  • dependence and
  •  system stability.

Or maybe I mean the relationship between path dependence and the ability to predict a system’s trajectory. I’m not sure about the best way to phrase the question.  In any case read on to see my confusion.

I’m bumping into a lot of people who believe that systems are unstable/unpredictable because of path dependence. This is one of those notions that seems right but smells wrong to me. It seems too simple, and it does not make sense to me because it implies that if systems are predictable there is no path dependence operating.  That can’t be right, can it? Here is a counter example. Continue reading

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Agent-based Evaluation Guiding Implementation of Solar Technology

 

AEGIS: Agent-based Evaluation Guiding Implementation of Solar

DE-FOA-0001496: SOLAR ENERGY EVOLUTION AND DIFFUSION STUDIES II – STATE ENERGY STRATEGIES (SEEDSII-SES)

Business contact:
Mr. Vijay Kohli
President
Syntek Technologies
703.522.1025 ext. 201
vkohli@syntek.org
Technical contact:
Jonathan A. Morell, Ph.D.
Director of Evaluation
Syntek Technologies
734 646-8622
jmorell@syntek.org
Confidentiality statement:This proposal includes information and data that shall not be disclosed outside the Government and shall not be duplicated, used, or disclosed – in whole or in part – for any purpose other than to evaluate this proposal. Howev-er, if a contract is awarded to this participant as a result of – or in connection with – the submission of this information and data, the Government shall have the right to duplicate, use, or disclose the data to the extent provided in the resulting contract. This restriction does not limit the Government’s right to use information contained in these data if they are obtained from another source without restriction. The entirety of this proposal is subject to this restriction.

Introduction

AEGIS (Agent-based Evaluation Guiding Implementation of Solar) demonstrates a novel approach to doing program evaluation: combining agent-based modeling with traditional program evaluation, and doing so continually, as the evaluation work unfolds. We propose to test the value of this approach for evaluating programs that promote the goals of SEEDS II, Topic 1, specifically, “Development of new approaches to analyze and understand solar diffusion and solar technology evolution; developing and utilizing the significant solar data resources that are available; improvement in applied research program evaluation and portfolio analysis for solar technologies leading to clearer attribution and identification of successes and trends.”

The field of evaluation has historically fallen short in providing the conceptual understanding and instrumental knowledge that policy makers and planners need to design better programs, or to identify and measure impact. Our hypothesis, supported by our work to date, is that agent-based modeling can improve the quality and contribution of evaluation. Specifically, we will increase stakeholder involvement and the adoption of evaluation recommendations. We propose to apply and evaluate our approach on programs that are designed to reduce the soft costs of solar deployment and to overcome barriers to diffusion, commercialization, and acceptance.

Scientific Justification and Work to Date

Continue reading

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