Two challenges and a puzzle

October 12, 2011

Let’s recap. The evaluation field tends to use things called “Logic Models” to assess and determine the “worth” of interventions. These go under various names, Program Logic, LogFrame, and strike fear into the hearts of many evaluators and managers of interventions because they often act as straight-jackets to messy projects. Funders of interventions love them because it creates a sense of certainty and a notion that someone somewhere can be held accountable for the consequences of their largesse or investment. Arguments go round and round about the pros and cons of Logic Models.

In the past couple of years, some of us have been using the Cynefin framework as a means of moving the debate forward. The argument, to those familiar with the framework, is not rocket science and I won’t overly dwell on it. From an ontological point of view, a single logic model that describes a single “theory of change”, is suitable for simple aspects of an intervention and its contextual situation. Indeed it’s a moot point whether we are at the level of “theory” here. Multiple logic models can describe different theories of change inherent in more complicated aspects of an intervention and its situation. This shift between single and multiple logic models is radical in some parts of the evaluation field

So that’s challenge number one. Moving people from single theories of change to multiple theories of change. I draw on several methods to do this. These include aspects of Soft Systems Methodology – it provides some useful and well established methods of enabling several framings (or “holons” in SSM jargon) to be identified from a particular situation. In Australasia, Europe and the UK there is also a growing practice of “realist” evaluation based on the notion that different things will happen from the same intervention in different contextual situations, or the corollary that different kinds of interventions will be needed to achieve the same outcome in different situations. So far the North American and “overseas development” evaluation scenes (or more accurately their clients) have been resistant to multiple models; as we know, institutions – and maybe some cultures – find it hard to let go of the one right way, best practice credo with all its supposed validity and predictability.

Moving on to the second challenge. What do we do about complex aspects of an intervention and its situation? How can we have a Theory of Change when we haven’t the foggiest notion of what’s going on with what impact? I have two thoughts about that, one I’ll deal with now and one I’ll deal with in my next blog that will focus on the epistemological aspects Cynefin and the consequences for evaluation. Back in the 1990’s, when Cynefin was a mere twinkle in David and Cynthia’s eyes, Max Boisot developed a typology of actions for dealing with different kinds and levels of uncertainty. For conditions where you have a low knowledge of a highly dynamic situation he described a series of actions that he called “intrapreneurship”. They are a bit more detailed than “probe, sense, respond” but essentially fit within that rubric. It strikes me that this “Theory of Action” (intrapreneurship) could replace the idea of a “Theory of Change” within those parts of an evaluation that are dealing with complex aspects of a situation.

And now the puzzle. I suspect we have all at some stage done the Post-It exercise where people place some aspect of a situation in one of the four quadrants of the Cynefin framework (I’ll leave the fifth “quadrant” till the next post). What I find is that the items often display a hierarchy of change, with the early aspects of a change process placed in the “simple” category, middle term aspects in the “complicated” category and long term aspects in the “complex” category. Irene in her blog asked the question about the relationship between ToCs and Cynefin … and there it is. Start at the simple and work up to the complex. Whilst that may be a perfectly legitimate thing to do, it misses the point and potential power of the framework. Why bother to go through the Cynefin exercise if all you have done is folded a left to right chain from actions to long term consequences backwards onto itself? It’s unlikely you will gain any new insights and it certainly doesn’t use the two dimensions of Cynefin (central/disbursed, strong/weak connection) very effectively.

Have others reading this blog found the same tendency? If so how have you moved people beyond that? I’d really like to know, because without that shift the potential for using Cynefin in evaluation becomes much more limited.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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