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Values-Based Adaptation in Complexity: The Power of Principles-Focused Developmental Evaluation

Updated: Jan 10

By Nora F. Murphy Johnson, PhD

I recently wrote a blog post titled “Developmental Evaluation for Social Justice: An Overview”. The truth is, I haven’t done a straight-up developmental evaluation in 10 years. I conducted my first principles-focused developmental evaluation in 2012 and since then, I’ve been hooked. There is no going back. Let me explain. 


Principles-Focused Developmental Evaluation is a specific approach to evaluation that combines two key concepts: principles-focused evaluation and developmental evaluation.

Developmental Evaluation (DE): This is an approach suitable for innovative programs and initiatives in complex or uncertain environments. Developmental evaluation supports program or organizational development by embedding evaluation into the initiative as a design and strategic learning process. It's especially useful when traditional evaluation methods are inadequate due to the emergent, innovative nature of a program.

Principles-Focused Evaluation(P-FE): This approach is grounded in the idea that clear, meaningful principles guide program design and implementation. Evaluators using this method focus on whether principles are relevant, meaningful, and applied effectively. It’s about assessing how well the principles themselves work in practice and whether they lead to desired outcomes.

When combined, Principles-Focused Developmental Evaluation (P-FDE)  helps organizations or programs operating in complex, changing environments to evaluate how well their guiding principles are working. It’s particularly useful for initiatives that are evolving and where learning and adaptation are key. This approach is about understanding and improving not just what a program does, but also the underlying principles that guide its strategy and implementation.

What Makes It Unique

In Principles-Focused Developmental Evaluation, principles are essentially core values translated into actionable statements. This means that the evaluation process is deeply anchored in the underlying values of the program, organization, or initative. These values are not just abstract ideas; instead, they are operationalized through clearly articulated principles that guide decision-making, strategy, and actions. By focusing on principles  the evaluation ensures that:

  • Core values are actively integrated and contextualized in daily operations.

  • These values become integral to the initiative's accountability and rigor.

  • The initiative's actions and outcomes visibly and measurably reflect these values.

In essence, this method evaluates not just the effectiveness of a program but also its fidelity to foundational values, adapting to and evolving with changing circumstances.

Aligning Actions with Values: The Power of Principles

I often emphasize the importance of alignment in our work and principles provide a robust framework for this alignment. Let’s dissect the core value of "Equity" to illustrate how principles can transform a value into a spectrum of actions.

Equity: From Definition to Action

Definition: Equity means ensuring equal access to opportunities and resources for all, especially for marginalized or disadvantaged groups. It's about recognizing and responding to diverse circumstances with the aim of achieving equal outcomes.

Core Value Statement: Equity lies at the heart of our mission. We are dedicated to promoting fairness and justice in all our endeavors, recognizing and responding to the diverse needs of the communities we serve.

Guiding Principles:

  • Commit to fairness and justice in all our procedures, processes, and resource distribution.

  • Acknowledge the unique needs and strengths of different individuals and communities and offer tailored opportunities to meet those needs and amplify their strengths

  • Pursue holistic and inclusive strategies, ensuring equitable treatment and resource access, and making inclusion, and belonging a tangible reality.

Translating Guiding Principles into Tangible Strategies

With guiding principles in place, we–the program and evaluation partners–hold our work accountable to these. For instance, an initiative might adapt the equity guiding principles into action across these various aspects of the work:

  1. Policy Development: We will innovate policies to address disparities more effectively, considering dynamic approaches like income-based sliding scales for service fees. Our goal is to continually evolve these policies to better serve changing societal needs.

  2. Recruitment and Hiring: Our hiring practices will not just aim for diversity in race, gender, and background, but also actively seek out underrepresented voices and perspectives, constantly refining our approach to be inclusive and equitable.

  3. Training and Development: We're committed to ongoing, progressive training in equity-focused practices. This involves not just cultural competency and inclusive communication but also exploring emerging concepts and methods that foster deeper understanding and respect.

  4. Program Design and Delivery: Our programs will be designed to be not only accessible and responsive but also anticipatory of the unique challenges of diverse communities. We plan to use predictive modeling and community feedback to create more effective and inclusive services.

  5. Resource Allocation: In allocating resources, we will employ innovative strategies to identify and support historically underserved groups, leveraging data and community input to ensure our resources make the most impactful difference.

  6. Partnerships: We aim to expand our network of partnerships, seeking collaborations with organizations and groups that are at the forefront of equity work. These partnerships will be based on shared goals, mutual learning, and collective impact.

Evaluating For Process and Outcomes

In our role as principles-focused developmental evaluators, we are dedicated to crafting and fostering an ecosystem of learning and feedback that is both dynamic and responsive. We focus on making sure our evaluation process is flexible and can change as needed. This involves using creative technologies and methods to get a full picture of what stakeholders think and experience. Our approach is all about including different perspectives, which helps the initiative stay true to its core values and achieve its goals. This ongoing cycle of feedback and learning makes sure that the initiative not only sticks to its main principles but also stays effective and responsive to new challenges and opportunities.


As evaluators, our role in principles-focused developmental evaluation transcends traditional boundaries. We become co-creators in the realization and embodiment of these values, making this approach distinctively impactful and transformative.

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