Invitation to a Conversation Between Program Funders and Program Evaluators: Complex Behavior in Program Design and Evaluation

Effective programs and useful evaluations require much more appreciation of complex behavior than is currently the case. This state of affairs must change. Evaluation methodology is not the critical inhibitor of that change. Program design is. Our purpose is to begin a dialog between program funders and evaluators to address this problem.

Current Practice: Common Sense Approach to Program Design and Evaluation
There is sense to successful program design, but that sense is not common sense. And therein lies a problem for program designers, and by extension, for the evaluators that are paid to evaluate the programs envisioned by their customers.

What is common sense?  
“Common sense is a basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge things that are shared by (“common to”) nearly all people and can reasonably be expected of nearly all people without need for debate.”

What is the common sense of program design?
The common sense of program design is usually expressed in one of two forms. One form is a set of columns with familiar labels such as “input”, “throughput”, and “output”. The second is a set of shapes that are connected with 1:1, 1:many, many:1 and many:many relationships. These relationships may be cast in elaborate forms, as for example, a systems dynamics model complete with buffers and feedback loops, or a tangle of participatory impact pathways.

But no matter what the specific form, the elements of these models, and hypothesized relationships among them, are based on our intuitive understandings of “cause and effect”, mechanistic views of how programs work. They also assume that the major operative elements of a program can be identified.

To be sure, program designers are aware that their models are simplifications of reality, that models can never be fully specified, and that uncertainties cannot be fully accounted for. Still, inspection of the program models that are produced makes it clear that almost all the thinking that went into developing those models was predominantly in the cause and effect, mechanistic mode. We think about the situation and say to ourselves: “If this happens, it will make (or has made) that happen.” Because the models are like that, so too are the evaluations.

Our common sense conceptualization of programs is based on deep knowledge about the problems being addressed and the methods available to address those problems. Common sense does not mean ignorance or naiveté. It does, however, mean that common sense logic is at play. There is no shame in approaching problems in this manner. We all do it. We are all human.

Including Complex Behavior in Program Design and Evaluation
When it comes to the very small, the very large, or the very fast, 20th Century science has succeeded in getting us to accept that the world is not common sensical. But we have trouble accepting a non-common sense view of the world at the scale that is experienced by human beings. Specifically, we do not think in terms of the dynamics of complex behavior. Complex behavior has much to say about why change happens, patterns of change, and program theory. We do not routinely consider these behaviors when we design programs and their evaluations.

There is nothing intuitively obvious about complex behavior. Much of it is not very psychologically satisfying. Some of it has uncomfortable implications for people who must commit resources and bear responsibility for those commitments. Still, program designers must appreciate complex behavior if they are ever going to design effective programs and commission meaningful evaluations of those programs.

Pursuing Change
There is already momentum in the field of evaluation to apply complexity. Our critique of that effort is that current discussions of complexity do not tap the richness of what complexity science has discovered, and also, that some of the conversation is an incorrect understanding of complexity. The purpose of this panel is to bring a more thorough, a more research based, understanding of complexity into the conversation.

By “conversation” we mean dialogue between program designers and evaluators with respect to the role that complexity can play in a program’s operations, outcomes, and impacts. This conversation matters because as we said at the outset, the inhibiting factor is recognition that complex behavior may be at play in the workings of programs. Methodology is not the problem. Except for a few exotic situations, the familiar tools of evaluation will more than suffice. The question is what program behavior evaluators have license to consider.

Our goal is to pursue a long-term effort to facilitate the necessary discourse. Our strategy is to generate a series of conferences, informal conversations, and empirical tests that will lead to a critical mass of program funders and evaluators who can bring about a long term change in the rigor with which complexity is applied to program design and evaluation.

 

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2 Responses to Invitation to a Conversation Between Program Funders and Program Evaluators: Complex Behavior in Program Design and Evaluation

  1. David Snowden says:

    Interested in this and links with activity at the Complexity Centre at Bangor University in Wales which I direct.

  2. Bob Williams says:

    Jonny I’m not sure what you’re asking me (or anyone else) to do. I certainly share your concern about the shambles that has become the discussion of ‘complexity’ in evaluation. And in the same way that systems concepts and language was permanently corrupted by the management sciences in the 1960’s and 1970’s it may already be too late for us to save the complexity discourse in evaluation. So what’s your starting strategy?

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