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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments