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Putting the fun and useful back into systems approaches in evaluation practice

Judy Oakden co-facilitated a workshop session with Marah Moore and Jan Noga at the American Evaluation Association Conference in Washington. It was a great chance to connect with others to think about applying systems thinking in our evaluation practice.

We used an appreciative inquiry approach to help participants reflect on when systems thinking works well in their evaluation practice.

First, we reflected on the questions that matter in developing evaluative criteria. We used four lenses: motivation, control, expertise and legitimacy. These lenses offered different perspectives on the evaluative criteria.

Next, we thought about how we negotiate client expectations drawing on a complexity framing:

  • structure: systems and processes
  • agency: the ability of people to make change
  • time: we considered short- and long-term perspectives
  • history: the paths people and organisations have taken to come to the place they are at today.

Again, we noticed that these lenses offered different ways to think about how we might navigate client expectations. For instance, we thought about evaluation rigour and how there are often trade-offs between getting good enough information and in the time available? We wondered if small evaluative steps might build to a more robustly valid evaluation process?

Finally, we discussed how we might deliver our findings in a way that highlights systems learning? We focused on:

  • patterns: using a pattern spotting approach to identify key findings
  • processes: for absorbing information and deciding what to do next
  • action: we noted action is essential to move forward and not stay stuck.

We agreed to rerun this workshop in different settings. If you are interested in having a session on using systems thinking approaches in evaluation either as a practitioner or a commissioner, don't hesitate to get in touch with Judy Oakden.