Principles for effective use of systems thinking in evaluation

Developed by the Systems in Evaluation Topical Interest Group of the American Evaluation Association this document is intended to support evaluators and evaluation stakeholders in the use of systems concepts in evaluation.

“To apply the “overarching” systems-in-evaluation principle means to systemically apply the four constituent principles – interrelationships, perspectives, boundaries and dynamics. The four constituent principles inform one another in essential ways. No one principle is complete without the others. Together, they form a system for guiding the systemic practice of evaluation.”

This resource and the following information was contributed by Kaye Stevens.

Authors and their affiliation

Systems in Evaluation Topical Interest Group of the American Evaluation Association

Key features

A preamble provides a useful, concise discussion of the field of systems thinking, some high-level definitions and general considerations to inform the use of the principles in evaluation.

Guidance on ‘Systems-in-evaluation’ and each of the four inter-related principles: Interrelationships, Perspectives, Boundaries and Dynamics, include:

  • Operating principles
  • Guidance on what not to do
  • Discussion of the principle and its application in evaluation practice
  • Helpful references

Prompting questions to explore whether the principles are being used in an integrated way are included in the section on the ‘systems-in-evaluation principle’. 

The document concludes with a brief discussion of future directions and a mapping of the Systems in Evaluation principles onto the GUIDE framework ‘s five criteria for a high-quality principle.

How have you used or intend on using this resource?

The guide is a valuable prompt for evaluators to think more rigorously about how system thinking is being applied in practice.

Why would you recommend it to other people?

The guide distills principles that draw on both systems thinking and evaluation fields and provides practical advice on the application of systems thinking in planning, conducting and reviewing evaluations.