Seeing Programs as Eco-Systems

I recently viewed a slide deck called “Evaluating Social Innovation” that Mark Cabaj presented at a Family Service Canada Executive Director Summit, and I saw further evidence that ecological paradigms provide a far more dynamic framework for program evaluation than the more linear, old-style manufacturing images that underly, for example, the Logic Model. Keeping in mind ecological paradigms instead of purely “logical” ones will take us much farther in developing innovative and effective initiatives, programs and services that continue to meet the needs of various constituents.

To begin the presentation, Cabaj defines social innovation as “new ideas that revolve around existing social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges for the benefit of people and planet”, knowing that these new ideas will change systems and alter the perspectives, behaviours and structures that gave rise to these challenges in the first place. The main concepts in the slide deck are that challenges lead to new ideas, that solutions need to benefit people and planet if they are collaboratively developed, and that evaluation can be a creative and appreciative process.

The mindset portrayed in the slide deck also recognizes that systemic change is not only unavoidable but necessary, much in the way that even the massive damage of a forest fire can regenerate an ecosystem. In fact, Cabaj uses the forest fire metaphor to explain the cycle of conservation, exploitation, creative destruction, and renewal that takes us from thinking about one-way “performance loops” to thinking about interconnected “renewal loops”.

The aim however is to avoid the forest fire scenario by making smaller adjustments along the way by participating in “developmental evaluation”. At regular points, particularly in the “exploitation” stage when a system (or program) has matured and is reaching peak functional capacity, it is critical to step back and evaluate the entity as a whole (inputs, outputs, outcomes, impacts) to identify emerging challenges and to see them as opportunities for regeneration. Otherwise, the risk is that the organization will fall into one of following “traps”: the scarcity trap, the parasitic trap, the rigidity trap, or the chronic disaster trap. These challenges, if not explored when they are first beginning to be identified, can lead to considerable damage in an organization and result in the aforementioned “forest fire”.

Instead, when ongoing, developmental evaluation of smaller critical incidents points to a systemic challenge, it is valuable to pause and analyze the feedback – positive and negative – emerging from the system. Don’t just evaluate at the end. Instead, take regular opportunities to bring people together to discuss the project, program or service under review. Make use of first-hand insights, outsider ideas, multiples perspectives, and flat structure and processes. Carry out little regenerative experiments that may lead to new, as-yet unexplored opportunities for growth and renewal. Make adjustments that keep the system in the healthy “conservation” mode for as long as possible, and ensure that – if it does occur – the “creative destruction” phase is as controlled, constructive and productive as possible.

Through this type of developmental evaluation and cyclical, emergent forward movement, the program or service being offered will not only result in peak performance but greater sustainability as well.

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