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Leadership innovation and the role of evaluation

What is the role of evaluation in the process of leadership innovation? This is a question we discussed recently at a Boston Circle gathering. Debbie Frieze shared Berkana’s theory of change that starts with a premise that local leadership is a powerful force for innovation and change. Experimentation with new ideas and processes happens at the local level where leaders are responding to the conditions they face. They actively seek alternatives to “business as usual.” Innovation often inspires resistance because people are not easily able to let go of the old to make room for the new.

How do you support innovators so that they can persist with their idea or solution long enough for it to take hold in the culture? Once a solution or idea takes hold it becomes a “system of influence," at which point resistance drops away and new ways of behaving or doing become the norm.

What is the role of evaluation in this process of innovation? During our conversation at the Boston Circle meeting someone mentioned that evaluation, as it is traditionally practiced, often seeks to discredit innovation by focusing on goals or desired outcomes, and holding the innovation accountable to the standards of what is already the norm. If the new does not demonstrate success at the level of the current system within a short period of time, it is considered a “failure.”

How would we evaluate the emergence of the new by criteria that are aligned with what is coming into being? How do you know when emergence is happening? How do you see it and make it visible to others? Communities of practice and learning communities are one way to do this because they create spaces that support leaders to reflect, learn, and assess what is happening and to develop language and learning tools that make “emergence” visible.

In a recent book entitled Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, the authors (one of whom is a founding father of the evaluation field, Michael Quinn Patton) describe an approach to evaluation that is aligned with emergence. “Developmental evaluation” (described on pages 238-240 in the book – it’s in the notes section at the back) asks questions like – How and where are we making progress? What is happening beyond our hoped for results? What can we learn from our “failures” and “mistakes?”

Developmental evaluation recognizes that data collection is a from of action and intervention. Observers can never remain outside of and external to what they observe. Once we let go of this illusion, then new learning opportunities emerge from standing close and in relationship to those who are acting in new ways.

Developmental evaluation is not goal-driven rather it seeks to reveal how systems unfold. This requires a close look at emergent local efforts and a commitment to bringing together those efforts to understand emerging patterns. Convening local leaders is itself part of the process of emergence since for a system of influence to emerge patterns have to become visible to more and more people. Evaluation can play a very important role in illuminating those patterns, making them visible to others who then are influenced by them.

One of our challenges is validating this evaluation approach so that it becomes widely accepted as a form of evaluation that is critical to understanding how change happens. Please share your thoughts on this evaluation dilemma. Have you practiced “developmental evaluation?” What have you learned?