AEA365 | A Tip-a-Day by and for Evaluators

Jan/14

29

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.

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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