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Simple Rules - Complexity and the Idea of a Protocol

How do we get complex phenomena in nature? How do birds fly in formation or ants build complicated anthills? How is the ecosystem regulated? How do our bodies adapt to changes in the environment? All of these are questions related to complex adaptive systems. The recently developed field of complexity theory attempts to address these types of questions scientifically. Complexity theory holds that when we have multiple independent agents that follow simple rules and are provided with feedback, complex phenomena will emerge. For instance, when ants build an anthill or bees build a beehive, they don't first get together and do strategic planning! Instead, each ant or bee does what it is genetically and biologically programmed to do and the environment provides ongoing feedback. The complex structures that are anthills or beehives result from the millions of behaviors that are undertaken. Similarly, in human behavior, no one group planned a city like New York or Paris (although certainly city planners try to plan at least some aspects of them). These cities have evolved based on the choices made by millions of individuals over centuries. Each individual made countless decisions based on local circumstances and feedback in their own lives, and the complex cities we know today emerged as a result. And, the individuals who live and work in a city change over time and yet the city continues to exist despite a constant churning of specific inhabitants. Complexity theory seeks to model and identify the simple rules that can lead to the emergence of complex adaptive systems like cities.

The notion of "simple rules" can be extremely valuable in evaluation. If we recognize that an evaluation is undertaken in an ecosystem that involves a wide variety of different stakeholders (autonomous agents) each making their own decisions based on their understanding of local circumstances and feedback, we can readily see why evaluations can be such challenging endeavors. If we can provide a set of simple rules that multiple independent stakeholders can follow and that incorporate feedback as the process unfolds, we can help to shape an evaluation without trying to force it into a "one-size-fits-all" framework.

The idea of "simple rules" is a lot like the idea of a protocol in medicine. A medical protocol is simply a set of "rules" that one or more medical staff apply consistently whenever the circumstances call for it. They don't have to recreate the rules every time the triggering situation arises. Wonderfully complex and adaptive results can emerge from simple protocols. For instance, in basic first aid, there is a standard set of "rules" for first responders who use the acronym ABC: check for a clear AIRWAY; make sure the person is BREATHING; check CIRCULATION. The protocol helps individuals concentrate, makes sure they don't skip a step, and means that they don't have to reinvent processes each time they respond to a new emergency. From these simple rules complex phenomena can emerge, including saving someone's life!

In systems evaluation we are using the idea of simple rules to develop a standard protocol that anyone can follow when doing an evaluation. The protocol does not predetermine the result - each evaluation, like each life threatening emergency, is a unique event. The protocol can be useful for ensuring that we don't miss key steps in an evaluation and can lead to the emergence of unique and adaptive evaluation systems.