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Understanding Complexity and Developmental Evaluation

Posted on August 18, 2014
By Cameron Norman

Complexity -- it's everywhere we look. If you're working to engage communities and create meaningful, sustainable change, then you're going to come up against complexity. This becomes even more complicated when you're not only trying to make change, but evaluate your efforts in making change.

Strategy and Complexity

Understanding complexity theory and how it manifests in practice is important, but it doesn't have to be scary. Further, it doesn't have to be 'academic' either, because as social psychologist Kurt Lewin once said (PDF)There is nothing so practical as a good theory.

One of the things that makes it practical is the application of complexity to the understanding AND development of your programs and communities. This means bringing together complexity science together with design and developmental evaluation into something I refer to as developmental design, which is about making decisions in the face of changing conditions.

First off, what the heck is this thing called complexity?  

For social programs, complexity exists:

… where there are multiple, overlapping sources of input and outputs (lots of information)

… that interacts with systems in dynamic ways

… at multiple time scales and organizational levels

… in ways that are highly context-dependent and non-linear

... and often include elements of different systems within them. 

This means that we can learn a lot from complexity because there's lots of new information, but it also means that what we learn needs to be placed into context. Just because something happens in one part of the system doesn't mean it will repeat in another part of the system - or another system altogether. This makes it tricky to do evaluations and to make claims about what impact we're having on these complex systems through our efforts at better (developmental) design. 

Developmental design and developmental evaluation requires that we understand complexity and take it into account. Indeed, complexity is at the root of developmental evaluation. So for those who are new to the idea or new to developmental evaluation, here are 7 resources that might help you get your head around this complex (pun intended) concept:

  1. Getting to Maybe is a book co-written by Tamarack's good friend Michael Quinn Patton and offers a great starting place for those working in community and human services;
  2. Patton’s book Developmental Evaluation (ch 5 in particular) is excellent;
  3. The Plexus Institute is a non-profit organization that supports ongoing learning about complexity applications for a variety of settings;
  4. Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement's own resources provide some amazing stuff, including the terrific introduction page that includes an interview with Getting to Maybe co-author (and presenter at the upcoming Collective Impact Summit!Brenda Zimmerman;
  5. Ray Pawson’s new book The Science of Evaluation is a more advanced, but still accessible look at ways to think about complexity, programs and evaluation;
  6. My blog Censemaking has a library section with sources on systems thinking and complexity that include these and many more for those interested in looking at this topic further;
  7. The best short introduction to the concept is a video by Dave Snowden on How to Organize A Children’s Party that is a cheeky way to illustrate complexity that I often use in my training and teaching. In three minutes you'll have a clear sense of what makes a system simple, complicated and complex and you might have a bit of a chuckle, too (or at least approach your next party differently). 

Complexity is part theory, part science and all about a way of seeing and thinking about problems. It doesn’t need to scare you and these resources can really help get you in the right mind-frame to tackle challenging problems and use evaluation effectively as a means to addressing them. It might be complex, but it’s fun, too.

Community Engagement, Collective Impact, Evaluating Community Impact, Community Innovation

Cameron Norman

By Cameron Norman

Cameron Norman is the the Principal of CENSE Research and Design in Toronto, Ontario. He works with health and human services organizations and networks to learn about what they do and design and re-design their offerings to better support their goals and aspirations.

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