I’m continuing to refine my understanding of the role and usefulness of principles in evaluation, strategy and complex project design. Last week in Montreal with Bronagh Gallagher, we taught a bit about principles-based evaluation as part of our course on working with complexity. Here are some reflections and an exercise.
First off, it’s important to start with the premise that in working in complexity we are not solving problems, but shifting patterns. Patterns are the emergent results of repeated interactions between actors around attractors and within boundaries. To make change in a complex system therefore, we are looking to shift interactions between people and parts of a system to create a beneficial shift in the emergent patterns.
To do this we have to have a sufficient understanding of the current state of things so that we can see patterns, a sense of need for shifting patterns and an agreed upon preferred and beneficial direction of travel. That is the initial strategic work in any complex change intervention. From there we create activities that help us to probe the system and see what will happen, which way it will go and whether we can do something that will take it in the beneficial direction. We then continue this cycle of planning, action and evaluation.
Strategic work in complexity involves understanding this basic set of premises, and here the Cynefin framework is quite useful for distinguishing between work that is best served by linear predictive planning – where a chain of linked events results in a predictable outcome – and work that is best served by complexity tools including pattern finding, collective sensemaking and collaborative action.
Working with principles is a key part of this, because principles (whether explicit of implicit) are what guide patterns of action and give them the quality of a gravity well, out of which alternative courses of action are very difficult.. Now I fully realize that there is a semantic issue here, around using the term “principles” and that in some of the complexity literature we use, the terms “simple rules” or “heuristics” are also used. Here I am using “principles” specifically to tie this to Michael Quinn Patton’s principles-based evaluation work, which i find helpful in linking the three areas of planning, action, and evaluation. He defines an effectiveness principle as something that exhibits the following criteria:
- Guides directionality
- Is useful and usable
- Provides inspiration for action
- Is developmental in nature and allows for the development of approaches (in other words not a tight constraint that restricts creativity)
- Is evaluable, in that you can know whether you are doing it or not.
These five qualities are what he calls “GUIDE,” an acronym made from the key criteria. Quinn Patton argues that if you create these kinds of principles, you can assess their effectiveness in creating new patterns of behaviour or response to a systemic challenge. That is helpful in strategic complexity work.
To investigate this, we did a small exercise, which I’m refining as we go here. On our first day we did a sensemaking cafe to look at patterns of where people in our workshop felt “stuck” in their work with clients and community organizations. Examples of repeating patterns included confronting aversion to change, use of power to disenfranchise community members, lack of adequate resources, and several others. I asked people to pick one of these patterns and asked them to create a principle using the GUIDE criteria that seems to be at play to keep this pattern in place.
For example, on aversion to change, one such principle might be “Create processes that link people’s performances to maintaining the status quo.” You can see that there are many things that could be generated from such a principle, and that perhaps an emergent outcome of such a principle might be “aversion to change.” This is not a diagnostic exercise. Rather it helped people understand the role that principles have in containing action with attractors and boundaries. In most cases, people were not working with situations where “aversion to change” was a deliberate outcome of their strategic work, and yet there was the pattern nonetheless, clear and obvious even within settings in which innovation or creativity is supposedly prized and encouraged.
Next I invited people to identify a direction of travel away from this particular pattern
using a reflection on values. If aversion to change represents a pattern you negatively value, what is an alternative pattern, and what is the value beneath that? It’s hard to identify values, but these are pretty pithy statements about what matters. One value might be “Curiosity about possibility” and another might be “excitement for change.” From there participants were asked to write a principle that might guide action towards the emergence of that new pattern. One such example might be “Create processes that generate and reward small scale failure.” I even had them take that one statement and reduce it to a simple rule, such as “Reward failure, doubt
The next step is to put these principles in play within an organization to create tests to see how effective the principle is. If you discover that it works, refine it and do more. If it doesn’t, or if it creates another poor pattern such as cynicism, stop using it and start over.