SETIG Week: Explaining the Systems in Evaluation Principles to Ordinary Folk by Michael Quinn Patton

I am Michael Quinn Patton, founder and director of Utilization-Focused Evaluation, and author of Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use. As an independent consultant I make my living doing evaluation. In order to engage stakeholders in evaluation processes, I have to be able to explain important concepts like complexity and systems to people of diverse backgrounds and education.

I find that a good way to explain abstract concepts is to connect those concepts with people’s lives and interests. In Minnesota, where I’m based, the state slogan is Land of 10,000 Lakes, and the major leisure activity is fishing. Minnesota is second only to Alaska in the percentage of residents who fish, and Minnesotans spend nearly $2.5 billion a year on bait, rods and reels, and other gear.

Cool Trick: To explain systems concepts I talk with people about fishing.

Boundary questions: What kind of fishing do you like to do? Where do you fish? What do you fish for? What do you do with the fish you catch?

Answers to these questions establish boundaries around fishing. Systems thinking calls attention to the importance of how boundaries are determined for any activity, including evaluation.

Perspectives questions: Why do you fish? What are some of the different reasons that people fish? (To eat, for recreation – catch-and-release; to be outdoors and commune with nature; to spend time with family and friends; because it’s fun). Do you know people who don’t like fishing? (Some find it boring, time-consuming, boring, difficult, boring, expensive to buy equipment, boring.)

Answers to these questions establish perspectives around fishing. Systems thinking calls attention to the importance of representing and addressing diverse perspectives.

Interrelationships questions: Who do you fish with? How does fishing fit into the rest of your life? How do you talk about fishing with other people? How important is fishing to you compared to other things that are important to you?

Answers to these questions reveal interrelationships. Systems thinking calls attention to and maps interrelationships.

Dynamics questions: How have you seen fishing change in recent years, if at all? How has your fishing experience changed over time? How will fishing in Minnesota be affected by climate change, population pressures, tourism, state environmental regulations, more severe weather patterns?  (Not-so-fun-fact: The most popular and official state fish is the Walleye which is very sensitive to temperature changes and is threatened by global warming in Minnesota.)

Answers to these questions reveal dynamics of systems and the ways in which changes in larger systems affect subsystems and vice versa. Systems thinking calls attention to the dynamic nature of systems – system interconnections over time and at different levels of interactions.

Hot Tip: Practice explaining systems concepts through things that people are familiar with in their daily lives: gardening, sports, arts, cooking, eating, exercise, and anything else going on in people’s lives.

Rad Resource: Make systems concepts personal. We are all ordinary folk. “Be guided by the personal factor.” Chapter 4 in Facilitating Evaluation (Patton, 2018).

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating this week with our colleagues in the Systems in Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from SETIG members. 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 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.


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