Developmental evaluation

Developmental Evaluation (DE) is an evaluation approach that can assist social innovators in developing social change initiatives in complex or uncertain environments.

DE originators liken their approach to the role of research & development in the private sector product development process because it facilitates real-time, or close to real-time, feedback to program staff thus facilitating a continuous development loop.

Michael Quinn Patton is careful to describe this approach as one choice that is responsive to context. This approach is not intended as the solution to every situation.

  • Development evaluation is particularly suited to innovation, radical program re-design, replication, complex issues, crises
  • In these situations, DE can help by: framing concepts, test quick iterations, tracking developments, surfacing issues.

This description is from Patton (2010) Developmental Evaluation. Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use...

"Developmental Evaluation supports innovation development to guide adaptation to emergent and dynamic realities in complex environments. Innovations can take the form of new projects, programs, products, organizational changes, policy reforms, and system interventions. A complex system is characterized by a large number of interacting and interdependent elements in which there is no central control. Patterns of change emerge from rapid, real time interactions that generate learning, evolution, and development – if one is paying attention and knows how to observe and capture the important and emergent patterns. Complex environments for social interventions and innovations are those in which what to do to solve problems is uncertain and key stakeholders are in conflict about how to proceed." 

Patton (2006) explains the differences between traditional and developmental evaluation. A summary version of these differences is presented below:

  • Traditional evaluation (TE): Supports improvement, summative tests and accountability.
  • Developmental evaluation (DE): Supports development of innovation and adaptation in dynamic environments.
Roles & relationships
  • TE: Positioned as an outsider to assure independence and objectivity.
  • DE: Positioned as an internal team function integrated into the process of gathering and interpreting data, framing issues, surfacing and testing model developments.
  • TE: Focused on external authorities and funders based on explicit and pre-ordinate criteria.
  • DE: Centered on the innovators' values and commitment to make a difference.
  • TE: Rigorously options-focused, traditional research and disciplinary standards of quality dominate.
  • DE: Utilisation focused; options are chosen in service to developmental use.
  • TE: Measure performance and success against pre-determined goals and SMART outcomes.
  • DE: Develops measures and tracking mechanisms quickly as outcomes emerge; measures can change during the evaluation as the process unfolds.
Evaluation results
  • TE: Detailed formal reports; validated best practices, generalisable across time and space. Can engender fear of failure.
  • DE: Rapid, real-time feedback; diverse, user-friendly forms of feedback. Evaluation aims to nurture learning.
Complexity & uncertainty
  • TE: Evaluator tries to control design implementation and the evaluation process.
  • DE: Learning to respond to lack of control; staying in touch with what's unfolding and responding accordingly.
  • TE: Methodological competence and commitment to rigour, independence; credibility with external authorities and funders; analytical and critical thinking.
  • DE: Methodological flexibility eclecticism, and adaptability; systems thinking; creative and critical thinking balanced; high tolerance for ambiguity; open and agile; teamwork and people skills; able to facilitate rigorous evidence-based perspectives.

(Adapted from "Table comparing traditional and developmental evaluation" (Patton, 2006, p.30)






Patton, M.Q. (2006) Evaluation for the Way We Work.  The Nonprofit Quarterly. Vol. 13 (1): 28-33. Retrieved via

Patton, M. Q. (2010) Developmental Evaluation. Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use. Guilford Press, New York. Retrieved via

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