LAWG Week: Evaluation 2018 from a Systems Thinking Perspective by Jan Noga

Hello, my name is Jan Noga. I’m the owner of Pathfinder Evaluation and Consulting in Cincinnati. I’m excited to see the conference here in Ohio; although, living in the opposite corner of the state, it’s going to take me longer to drive to Cleveland than it would to fly to DC!

The conference is exciting. But it can also be daunting, for those new to evaluation and the annual meeting, and stale, for those veterans of many years of conference attendance. So, novice or veteran, here’s a strategy for negotiating the conference using systems thinking.

Systems thinking is a way of understanding the world that emphasizes the whole and how its individual parts contribute. It is concerned with:

  • The interrelationships among the system’s parts and their relationship to the whole,
  • The multiple perspectives that are part of the system, drive what happens within the system, and influence how actors and elements experience the system
  • The boundaries that define the system. 

Cool Trick: Evaluation 2018 from a systems thinking point of view:

  • Interrelationships: Think of the conference as many dances being danced at the same time. If you’re new, what dance do you pick? Go to the orientation provided by AEA to learn the basic steps. Find a TIG that interests you and attend the business meeting. Attend a workshop to get a start on some familiar faces to “dance” with during the conference. You’ll be weaving your own pattern in no time. But you’re not new, you say? The conference is getting old? Change the dance! Get out of your routine – if you usually go to paper sessions, go to think tanks. Skip some sessions and get coffee with someone you’ve always wanted to talk with. Weave a new pattern for the conference.
  • Perspective: Novice or veteran, each of us brings a perspective around timing, quality, and “appropriate” type of session, among others, that will influence how you engage with the conference and whether it meets your expectations. Challenge your perspectives. Understand where you are coming from but seek out other perspectives and try to understand them as well. You’ll be surprised what you learn about yourself and your fellow evaluators.
  • Boundaries: NO ONE CAN DO IT ALL. There are boundaries of scheduling and energy that we all struggle with. You don’t have to attend a session during every time block if you don’t want to. There are also boundaries of interest and purpose – what are you here for? Rethink the boundaries you create for yourself to redefine how you engage.

Rad Resource: Want to learn more about systems thinking? There are always a number of workshops and sessions sponsored by the Systems in Evaluation TIG at the conference that you can take advantage of. Or, try the TIG’s website:

We’re looking forward to the fall and the Evaluation 2018 conference all this week with our colleagues in the Local Arrangements Working Group (LAWG). 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 contribute to aea365? Review the contribution guidelines and send your draft post to

1 thought on “LAWG Week: Evaluation 2018 from a Systems Thinking Perspective by Jan Noga”

  1. Hello Jan,
    I think the way in which you have sought to enhance the conference experience is very interesting and clever. I also believe that systemic thinking can work in many situations in life. Since most of the time, the three points you mentioned (Interrelationships, Perspective, and Boundaries) can change the situation 100%.

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