Developmental Evaluation

Development, Development evaluation

Developmental Evaluation (DE) is an evaluation approach that can assist social innovators develop 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:

Source: Patton (2006)p.30 

FAQ about Developmental Evaluation

1. How do you budget for a developmental evaluation, given that its design is emergent? Interview with Michael Patton.




  • Developmental evaluation compared with r&d - Michael Quinn Patton discusses the relationship between developmental evaluation and the research and development process and suggests that the use of DE in public policy can play a similar role to R&D in the private sector by assisting innovation and experimentation. (total running time: 2 mins)
  • Developmental evaluation as alternative to formative assessment- Michael Quinn Patton outlines the differences between developmental, formative and summative evaluation by describing DE as an evaluation for a developing or emerging initiative while summative and formative evaluation are used to examine established programs. (total running time: 3 mins)
  • Planning and Evaluating for Social Change: An Evening at SFU with Michael Quinn Patton - in this presentation, Michael Quinn Patton focuses on the changing landscape of evaluation through the use of  examples and interactive exercises in order to demonstrate how a developmental evaluation framework can be used to connect people and create more effective social change strategies. (total running time: 1.5 hrs)


  • The Developmental Evaluation Institute - this website aims to provide pathways for new, emerging, and mid-career evaluators to develop skills in Developmental Evaluation for social justice.
  • Developmental evaluation - this webpage provides links to six audio files of an interview between Mark Cabaj and Michael Patton on development evaluation in which they discuss: the power of evaluation thinking; the value of evaluation in developmental situations; the what & why of “patch evaluation”; and concepts & tools for working with developmental evaluation (total running time: 8 mins)


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

The Evaluators Institute


wnfaulkner's picture
William Faulkner

Hello all, 

Quick question: are there agreed-upon translations for "Developmental Evaluation" by now in Spanish and Portuguese?


Nick Herft's picture
Nick Herft

Hi Will,

From Michael Quinn Patton:

"Because of the difficulty of translating 'developmental', I suggest that the approach be referred to as adaptive evaluation. 'Adaptive' is easier to translate than developmental, a fact I wish I had known when I labelled the DE approach."

Using Google Translate, "Adaptive evaluation" translates to "evaluación adaptativa" and "avaliação adaptive", in Spanish and Portuguese respectively.


Anonymous's picture
Angela Tuntufye


Kindly add my name in this group, I'm M&E specialist working with an international organization in Tanzania.

Best regards


Alice Macfarlan's picture
Alice Macfarlan

Greetings Angela! You can join the BetterEvaluation community via the following link:

If you have a particular interest in Developmental Evaluation, you may also want to follow the link to the Developmental Evaluation Institute (under 'Resources') and sign up for their newsletter as well.

Warm regards,


Anonymous's picture
Maria Errazuriz

Felicitaciones por esta página! es una herramienta muy útil para los que trabajamos en estos temas , 

Muchas gracias.

Wolfgang Beywl's picture
Wolfgang Beywl

Suggestion for an apt term for DE

In 2011 I suggested to Michael to use the attribute "evolutive" instead of the misleading "developmental". He answered me at that time that he considered this a valid alternative. That this kind of evaluation is an emergent, unpredictable, “evolutiornary” process is obvious. Michael places his approach in the sequence summative-formative. From the linguistic aesthetics and the memorability (and also as a reference to the great Michael Scriven) it is reasonable to coin "evolutive" as another word of art. "Adaptive" is too close to "responsive" for me . Strictly speaking, responsive, coined by Bob Stake in the early 1970s, is an umbrella term for many approaches that have followed since the 1980s: evaluation "responds" like a resonating body to the concerns and issues (Guba & Lincoln) of the object of evaluation. Evolutive, then, is a variety of responsive evaluation Who wants to read my German-language review of "Developmental Evaluation" ( works with DeepL also from 25 other languages):

Anonymous's picture
mpindi IvanTalyowuwe

Throughout the amazing knowledge am sure if we impact it into action it will be more helpful to those who cant access this Evaluation in development

Anonymous's picture
John Robert Lokong

Add me to these group it looks quite interesting. I am M&E practitioner working in a project in South Sudan. and I am also pursuing  online masters in M&E.