Developmental Evaluation: Your Innovation Road Trip Advisor

Cense Ltd.

Innovation and evaluation are like going on a road trip. We might have a destination, it’s the journey that counts.

For many people, summer vacation is linked with one thing: road trips. In places like North America where distances between cities are great, the roads are (usually) well-maintained, and flights are expensive, road trips are the way many of us travelled as kids (and still do) to visit family and friends. It can also be a great way to experience new things, places, and opportunities — the very things that we find with innovation.

What distinguishes a ‘road trip’ from a simple journey by automobile is that it is meant to have a sense of adventure to it. There may be a destination, but the journey to the destination is open to some interpretation and modification along the way. Furthermore, the journey is a big part of the trip itself, not just a means to an end. This is a useful parallel with developmental evaluation.

Developmental evaluation (DE) is an approach to understanding the activities of a program operating in dynamic contexts with complex interactions — which is most human service programs. It focuses on innovation and strategic learning rather than standard outcomes and is as much a way of thinking about programs-in-context and the feedback they produce. DE represents an extension of Michael Quinn Patton’s original concept of Utilization-Focused Evaluation with some additional features informed by complexity science. While Utilization-Focused Evaluation has a series of steps to follow (PDF), Developmental Evaluation is less prescriptive, which is what makes it much like a road trip for innovators.

The analogy of the road trip with the desired destination, but not a pre-determined route and only a generalized timeline. A Road Trip is something that is more than just travelling from Point A to Point B, which is usually accomplished by taking the shortest route, the fastest route or a combination of the two; rather it is a journey. Movies like National Lampoon’s Vacation (and, European Vacation), Thelma and Louise, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and (surprise!) Road Trip all capture this spirit to some effect. One might even argue that the Lord of the Rings Trilogy might be just one long, Hobbit-filled road trip in Middle Earth.

Road Trips have a long history and are not just a North American phenomenon as this article from The Hindu profiled:

“Road trips are fun when they are not planned point-to-point. As long as you have accommodation booked, that is enough. Its better not to have agendas; get as spontaneous and adventurous as you can.

The idea of spontaneity and adventure are part of the process, not an unexpected problem to be solved like in a traditional evaluation. Indeed, some of these unplanned and unusual departures are not only part of the learning, but essential to it. It is akin to what Thor Muller describes as planned serendipity; you might not know what is going to come, but it is possible to set the conditions up to increase the likelihood of and preparedness for moments of discovery and learning. This is like setting out on a journey with a mindset of developmental and strategic learning to fit with what Louis Pasteur stated about discovery:

Chance favours the prepared mind

Developmental evaluators create conditions to learn en route to a general destination without a clear path and an open mind towards what might unfold. This attention to the emergence of new patterns and then the sensemaking to understand what these new patterns mean in the context to which they emerged and the goals, directions and resources that surround the discovery is an important facet of what separates Developmental Evaluation from other forms of evaluation and research.

Developmental Evaluation: The Road Trip Advisor

In describing what DE is to those who are unfamiliar with it, using the road trip analogy is useful, but incomplete. We need to take it one step further. DE is a guide, not a prescription. It’s also made up of user-generated data, much like another travel resource: Trip Advisor. For our innovation journey let’s call this: Road Trip Advisor.

For the innovator, Road Trip Advisor would aid you on a journey that has a general destination, but with no single path to it. Along the way, the developmental evaluator would work with those taking the journey with her — likely the program staff, stakeholders and others interested in strategic learning and feedback — and systematically capture the decision points to take a particular path, the process that unfolded in making decisions, the outcomes or events connected to those decisions (inasmuch as one can draw such linkages), and then continually dialogue with the program team about what she or he or they are seeing, sensing and experiencing. This includes what innovations are being produced.

Where Road Trip Advisor (DE) also helps is in framing the learning that takes place along the way. Let’s return to the article on road-tripping from The Hindu:

“Road-tripping is a great way to bond with the people you are travelling with and I would strongly recommend it to people. It not only makes you appreciate yourself as an individual but is an amazing experience as you get to meet new people, know different cultures and sample different cuisines.

Here the focus is on relationships, learning new things and taking that learning onward. That is what DE is all about.

Road Trip Advisor requires documenting the journey along the way, sharing what you learn with others, and continuing learning and revisiting your notes — while checking out what notes others have (including use of evidence from other projects and academic research) — and integrating that together on an ongoing basis.

Learning means embracing the unexpected, maybe the undesired, but focusing on moving forward along toward your destination regardless. Road trip stories are often filled with tales of flat tires, unexpected detours for bathroom breaks or water, and periods of getting lost.

“Are we on the right road?”

“Shouldn’t we be at our destination by now?”

“Which direction are we going?”

These are phrases that many road-trippers will be familiar with. Yet, they are part of the journey. Innovators say the same things. Often there are moments where we don’t know what is happening or whether we’re on the right track. That is part of the process and DE allows us to gather and make sense of the data to help us understand what is happening, calibrate ourselves, and find the right direction.

Preparedness and the Unexpected

Packing a tire iron, spare tire, some snacks, water, a flashlight and batteries, and maybe a sleeping bag or two in case of emergency is important for road tripping in places that aren’t well-travelled or populated.

Here, the story parallel to DE is about being prepared. Know your evaluation methods. Know how to build and sustain relationships and to deal with conflict. Having a high tolerance for ambiguity and the flexibility to adapt is also important. Knowing a little about systems thinking and complexity doesn’t hurt either. Developmental evaluation is not healthy for those who need a high degree of predictability, are not flexible in their approach, and adhere to rigid timelines. Complex systems collapse under rigid boundary conditions and do evaluators working with such restrictions in developmental contexts.

As we return to the story in the Hindu we see further parallels to DE and how it is the unexpected that can offer the greatest benefit for the innovator.

So why do people do it? “Well, my memories of my favourite road trip were an injured leg, chocolates, beautiful photographs and a great sense of fulfilment,”

DE can be fun. It is fun because we learn and grow and challenge ourselves and the programs that we are working with. It’s collaborative, instructive, and promotes a level of connection between people, programs and ideas that other methods of evaluation and learning are less effective at. DE is not for everyone or every program. At Cense, we find many organizations approach us with a request to do DE but aren’t interested in the road trip — they want a direct, short-hop flight. In that case, developmental evaluation is not for them. But for those programs where innovation, strategic learning and collaboration count, it is a pretty good way to journey from where you are to where you want to go.

Where will you go on your next road trip?

Photos by Kasimir Karanka on Unsplash, Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash Ezra Comeau-Jeffrey on Unsplash . Thank you all for sharing your art with the world!

Cense Ltd.

Written by

A consultancy focused on innovation for human services through design, behavioural science, and research.

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