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Cameron Norman on Complexity Science for Evaluators

My name is Cameron Norman and I am the Principal of CENSE Research + Design. My work brings together complexity science and design together with developmental evaluation into something I refer to as developmental design, which is about making decisions in the face of changing conditions.

Lesson Learned: At the heart of developmental evaluation is the concept of complexity and innovation. Complexity is a word that we hear a lot of, but might not fully know what it means or how to think about it in the context of evaluation.

For social programs, complexity exists:

… where there are multiple, overlapping sources of input and outputs

… that interact with systems in dynamic ways

… at multiple time scales and organizational levels

… in ways that are highly context-dependent

Rad Resources: 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 our 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, of course, 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 has an excellent introduction page including an interview with Getting to Maybe co-author 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.
  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.

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.

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