I used to have sign over my desk that said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, but it’s long since fallen off and been cleared away by the cleaners, along with a large number of stray almonds that seem to have a habit of accumulating under my desk.
For years I have struggled to convince people that striving for simplicity is useful and perhaps even ethical. I once told a group of co-workers that it was our moral duty to make safety legislation understandable for business owners and workers. After all, how could we realistically expect people to comply with legislation that they found incomprehensible?
This didn’t always land well. Over the years, many people have accused me of reductionism, of reducing complex ideas to simple one-liners, and whilst I acknowledge that many ideas are complex and nuanced, I still think that when people are being introduced to new ideas and processes you need to start from a point that is simple so that you don’t lose them too early.
I’ve never heard anyone complain that something is too simple.
Much of my current work is centred on building evaluation capability. I think it’s fair to say that many people find evaluation daunting (and sometimes a little boring, although I struggle to see why) and mostly this is because we’ve made it too hard, too complicated, too indecipherable.
We do this by using unfamiliar terminology, and by creating processes, templates and forms that are difficult to understand and hard to use. I’ve seen people going around in circles trying to work out the difference between an outcome and an output, when they should really be focussing on what their program is intended to achieve, and what they might want to know when they’ve finished delivering the program.
I’m not claiming that evaluation isn’t a complex and thoughtful field, I’m just saying that if you want to build capability and confidence, you need to start with the basics. It gets complicated soon enough.
I’m reminded of this every day as I try to mentor my co-worker in the intricacies of evaluation. She wants me to explain (as simply as possible) how things work, and sometimes it’s hard. So much of evaluation revolves around the words “it depends”. I can see the frustration on her face and I’m sure she sometimes thinks I’m trying to be deliberately obtuse, but the reality is that sometimes things are complicated.
Last week we were trying to work through the difference between outcomes and impacts. Much of the literature uses these terms interchangeably, although sometimes they are defined very differently.
In my view, outcomes might be short or medium term, whereas impacts tend to be wide-ranging, long term effects and therefore harder and more expensive to measure. Of course, I’m not an evaluation expert so I could well be wrong, but I remind myself that there are often a wide range of views across the profession and even the experts sometimes disagree.
I discuss this with my colleague. We circle round, we circle back, but rather than getting ourselves into a pickle, we decide that sometimes there’s no right answer.
Sometimes the best you can do is settle on your own definition and go with that. It serves no purpose to tie yourself up in knots by making things more complicated than they need to be.