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In the Course of a Lifetime - Ontogeny

An evolutionary systems evaluation perspective leads us to think differently about programs. For instance, the idea of ontogeny in evolutionary theory is concerned with the origin and the development of an organism from inception through maturity. In human organisms ontogeny refers to the different phases of development from infancy to old age. Instead of thinking of our programs as static entities, this notion encourages us to think of each program as continuously evolving through different phases in a lifecycle, much like any organism does. While this lifecycle will manifest itself differently for each program, much as different people develop at different rates at various times in their lives, we can sketch out a hypothetical sequence that would likely fit many programs into multiple phases like the initiation, development, maturity or stability, and implementation or dissemination phase.

These stages aren't meant to be a strait-jacket or an inflexible taxonomy. For any given program, the progression may not be sequential. Like some people, a program may be precocious. It may for instance quickly evolve through the development phase and become stabilized or routinized. Or, a program can revert to an earlier stage, much like the young adult that temporarily reverts to juvenile behavior before resuming more mature development. At any phase, we may decide whether to continue the program or not. Sometimes it is apparent even early in a program's development that it is not able to be implemented well or that it has a fundamental flaw in its conception or structure.

This notion of a program lifecycle has practical implications for evaluation. How should a program be evaluated at each stage of its lifecycle? In organizations that are simultaneously running multiple programs - and most organizations do this routinely - what are the advantages of thinking about the collection of programs as constituting a type of portfolio and encouraging variation of programs at different stages of development? What role can evaluators play in helping program administrators and organizations assess where their programs are in their development and in encouraging them to think about when and how they will evolve their programs to their next phase?

In many of our program contexts, we become committed to the program as it currently exists. The program evolves up to a point and then we get a type of "lock-in" where we seemingly get stuck in a phase and are unable to move any further. Program decisions turn into a struggle between program preservationists who fear change and the potential loss of their familiar context, resources, or even their jobs, and program critics who push for ever-extending demonstrable results and emphasize ever-shrinking funding and resources.

An evolutionary perspective on programs and the idea of ontogeny emphasize program change as something to be expected and embraced. Instead of the commitment to preserving the program as it is, they encourage the idea that programs have a limited life-span, that they should not be assumed to live forever, that it is normal to see them as part of an ongoing trial-and-error learning process, and that the abandonment of an older program and the development of new ones is part of the normal cycle-of-life. From the beginning of the program, and throughout its evolution, the focus is on where the program is in its development and how to move it to the next phase. In effect the idea of a lifecycle creates system pressure to move programs along and not allow them to become static.