What does it take to trigger systemic changes that can improve quality of life in a community? One suggestion that emerged from the Better Place convening in San Diego earlier this month was the idea of novelty: we need a novel idea and then opportunities to test it, discover its value, and take it to scale.

But where do novel ideas come from? And how do you know which novel idea is worth trying – will be the right one to solve the problems you’re trying to solve, to get to the outcomes you’re trying to achieve?

Better Place 1

Novel ideas might emerge from listening to and working with communities. Not only can community members describe what does and doesn’t work in their communities, they can help you diagnose the problem in ways that surface new opportunities. But this doesn’t happen from a focus group or a one-time community meeting. It takes sustained, meaningful partnerships to move from hearing about the impact of the system on communities to surfacing novel ways of solving the problems.

Novel ideas might also emerge from outside the community, or from community members who have had experiences in other places. Sometimes community members and systems leaders are all so embedded in the current systems it can be hard to see where change is possible. Having an outside approach, another city’s successes, a new framework brought to the table by a credible participant in the process can trigger a novel idea.

Novel ideas might emerge from failures as well. A systems change attempt that did not get adopted might trigger thinking about what could be adopted. Alternatively, a systems change that was adopted, but did not achieve the desired outcomes, might inspire new thinking about what it will take to get to the outcomes.

These are all things evaluation can help with: creating space to work with, and learn from, communities; bringing in insights from other places; and learning from failure. Evaluation can also be a partner in assessing the potential of a novel idea to solve the problem.

Better Place 2Not every systems change idea is worth adopting; in fact most ideas are probably not worth pursuing. But how can you tell when your novel idea is the right idea – when it can meaningfully improve outcomes for your community in the ways you care about?

  • You can look at the data and make sure that the novel idea directly addresses the things the data tell you are the drivers of the problem. Of course, data can’t tell you the solution that will address those drivers, unless someone is already piloting a similar solution in your community.
  • You can look at what has happened in other communities around the country, looking for similar examples in similar contexts to see how it played out.
  • You can work with community members to vet options and explore scenarios of what will happen if the policy is adopted and how the community will look different.

Or, ideally, you can do all three together, using data and examples from other communities to inform a community dialogue around the options and generate scenarios of what will happen if the policy is adopted. Once again, evaluation can be a powerful partner in all three of these steps to designing the best systemic changes.

Getting to a better place is not something anyone can do alone, but one of my biggest takeaways from the Better Place convening was the many stakeholders who believe in the potential of evaluators to be partners at the table, helping to shape the change by bringing data and evaluation to the table as decision-making tools. Each partner in a systems change effort has to contribute in a meaningful way and evaluators have contributions to make as partners in getting to meaningful changes, not neutral judges of what worked and what didn’t.

Are you an evaluator who is trying to shift from a traditional evaluation role to being a partner at the table? Check out our Developmental Evaluation Toolkit for some tips and processes to make it easier to adopt the new role.