My undergraduate education had a strong foundation in systems thinking – it is one tool that is particularly well aligned with the work of Human Ecologists, for helping us understand complex interactions in social-ecological systems and mechanisms for change. I came, naively, to evaluation thinking that I would be able to apply these big systems thinking approaches (e.g. soft systems methodology, critical systems heuristics) on a large scale in evaluations. That is, that I would be writing them into methodologies, that clients would be lapping them up, excited to see the possibilities for reflective practice. In reality, this reflects my initially instrumental understanding of systems thinking!
It’s also why I was so excited when I discovered that there is a body of literature around systems concepts and thinking in evaluation – bringing two interest areas of mine together. Bob Williams and Iraj Imam’s anthology of systems thinking in evaluation is a great place to start for this, along with a lot of the work by Gerald Midgley in this area. These offer much for consideration in evaluation. However, whilst reading them, I did find there was something missing. I knew from my everyday evaluation practice – because of client expectations, resource constraints, expectations around time – that implementing an evaluation based on systems thinking might be a challenge if I were to try it some day. I was left wondering how I could actually do this in my day to day work. I wanted something more.
I recently came across this useful model from the Waters Foundation, which describes 13 ‘habits’ of systems thinkers.
It got me thinking about the role of systems thinking in evaluation. I like that it makes systems thinking personal, rather than some abstract methodology to be implemented. It struck a chord, because I realised where I’d been going wrong – I’d been trying to find models or frameworks with a systems thinking ‘flavour’ to apply to evaluations. Instead, like all good things, starting with the self was where systems thinking was going to come in handy! That is, I could be a systems thinker, but not necessarily do systems evaluation per se. The habits listed above are tangible and easily practice and could be closely aligned with many of the commonly understood evaluation competencies.
Whilst all could have a bearing on my evaluation practice, those that stand out to me are:
Finds where unintended consequences emerge
I consider this an important aspect of good evaluation – to not just look for the expected or intended outcomes of an intervention, but also understand unexpected outcomes. Thinking in this way can also goes some way in developing alternative explanations for causal inference and considering the wider relationships between the outcomes and other ’causes’.
Surfaces and tests assumptions
So much about evaluation, to me, seems to be about making the implicit, explicit. So, habitually working to draw out assumptions and test them, with others, is core to being a useful evaluator. This can be done in conversation, in daily life – it’s not just useful at the scale of program evaluation.
Seeks to understand the bigger picture
I also feel that in daily evaluation practice, I can get bogged down in the details and busy-ness of what I need to get done. Forgetting the bigger picture is dangerous as you can miss important information! So, making a daily habit of seeking the bigger picture and questioning the place of small things in their context might help keep things in perspective.
So, I am going to spend some time experimenting with ways of practicing these habits in my work and life in a more explicit way. They are habits that I feel intuitively drawn to, but actually drawing them out, articulating and critiquing them is the next step for making a more reflective practice!
Do any of the habits stand out to you? How could you use these in your work or life?
Update: Thanks to some great conversations after posting this blog, I’d like to add this description of thinking systemically from Bob Williams which goes further in describing some ways of using systems concepts. I see this as a sort of ‘level up’ from the schematic I was discussing in this post, in terms of going deeper into the background on systems thinking (and also resolving some common misconceptions). It’s also important to note that the Waters Foundation ‘habits’ cover relationships, but not boundaries, an equally important systems concept. It’s got me thinking about what ‘boundary’ habits might look like, so perhaps there’s a future blog post in that! Thanks Bob & Better Evaluation!