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What Does Developmental Evaluation Even Mean?

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What Does Developmental Evaluation Even Mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

How do we define success, let alone measure it, when intervening in complex challenges like climate change or poverty? The goals seem to evolve over time as conditions change. An emerging evaluation method, called developmental evaluation (DE), can be applied when the definition of and path to success is unclear. But what does developmental evaluation even mean?

Complex challenges breach traditional evaluation practices. In the past, we have looked at the concept of complexity and the strategies for affecting change in the face of it. Such challenges are nonlinear, dynamic, constantly evolving, and difficult to predict. Accordingly, our interventions (i.e., initiatives, innovations, or programs), as well as how we evaluate their impact, must be adaptive, iterative, and responsive. Ideas of "definitive solutions" and "clear victories" do not apply. 

Michael Quinn Patton, pioneer of developmental evaluation, describes it as being grounded in systems thinking and supportive of innovation through the collection and analysis of real-time data in ways that lead to informed and ongoing decision making as part of the design, development, and implementation process.

As a relative newcomer to the field of evaluation, DE supports adaptive learning by providing stakeholders with a holistic understanding of context and real-time insights about how interventions should evolve in response to both changing circumstances, and new information gained along the way. For example, it can help answer the following questions:

  • What is shifting or emerging as the intervention takes shape?
  • What do initial results reveal about expected progress?
  • What variations in effects are we seeing?
  • How have different values, perspectives, and relationships influenced the intervention and its outcomes?
  • How is the larger system responding to the intervention?

Interested in learning more about developmental evaluation? I recommend starting with The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation’s Practitioner’s Guide to Developmental Evaluation and Michael Quinn Patton’s seminal book, Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use.