How Might We Zoom Out to Evaluating With a Systemic View?

Posted by Tatyana Mamut and Johannes Seemann



Many innovations in the social sector promise to create systemic transformation. But if we intend for our ideas  to have systemic impacts, then we must develop a way to take a systemic view of the effects and outcomes of these actions. Doing so also helps identify the winners and losers in any transformative project, as there are almost always actors who benefit from innovations as well as those for whom change creates friction and loss. Who are these winners and losers? How can we see both positive and negative effects of our innovations? And how might we begin to recognize and track the intended and unintended consequences that may arise?

During a recent project that took us to Ethiopia, we interviewed a local treadle-pump manufacturer who noted that the era of NGO and government interventions created expectations among their small-farmer customers that many agricultural products and services should be provided free of charge or at heavily subsidized prices. While the NGOs and government officials were certainly well-meaning in their work and support of farmers, their actions lowered the value of agricultural goods and services so much that local businesses closed shop or were forced to seek subsidies from the NGOs themselves in order to remain profitable.

As we can see from the Ethiopian example, taking a system view means more than just focusing on the effects of the innovation for the direct customers or benefactors. During a recent set of projects at IDEO, we have started to prototype and use a framework that helps us identify the multiple stakeholders in a system in order to create a method for tracking and evaluating effects across these multiple actors. During a recent session at the Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco, we led a group of participants through this framework to help identify the multiple stakeholders in the system in their own work. This approach, called Holistic Impact Assessment, entails articulating and tracking the effects on the following categories. For each of these categories, map out the primary actors and keep working to connect these primary actors to secondary and tertiary stakeholders. By answering these questions, a more holistic view of the system comes into focus. This focus can also provide a set of directives for areas and stakeholders to interrogate for more robust evaluation of the net impact of an innovation.

Constituents: Identify the primary constituents and their relationships. Who are the primary people the solution intends to affect? Who are the people, organizations, and other actors that are related and linked to the primary constituents?

Funders: Delineate the funders and investors. Who is bringing value in terms of money and other resources to the system? Who else-foundations, investors, shareholders, governments-are related to primary funders and have stakes in the funding?

Society: Determine the stakeholders in society who may be touched by the innovation. Beyond the primary constituents and those who are directly related to them, who else may be affected or have a stake in the intervention? What actors-such as schools, businesses, different social classes-may experience a value gain or loss as a result?

Nature: Articulate the aspects of the natural environment that may be affected. What areas of the natural environment need to be considered? Where will resources be extracted and how will they be allocated? Who-people, organizations, or public authorities-speak for these aspects of nature and the environment?

Next, posit where you might look within the framework to track the actors who will gain value through the innovation as well as those who might experience a loss of value. For example, going through this exercise in Ethiopia would have helped NGOs and government officials anticipate that local businesses would experience a significant decline in the prices of their goods and services. With this knowledge, they would have been able to create a proactive response, possibly by partnering with local businesses instead of bypassing them. Going through this exercise will help focus on the stakeholders that you will want to track over time.  It is usually a good idea to choose at least one actor from each category to develop a broad-based vision of the impact of the innovation.

Methods such as these can help expand our concept of evaluation and create a more holistic understanding and assessment of impact. Not only does this framework help to broaden our perspective for better evaluation, it is a first step to giving voice to the multiple actors in the system so that we can continue learning -- and create better and better future innovations.


  • How can taking a system view help advance evaluation and help us learn?

  • How has this framework helped you see systemic factors in a new light?

  • What other tools and methods can help us take a system view?

  • What do we risk if we fail to take a system view of our work?


Tatyana Mamut is an economic anthropologist and content guide for IDEO's Design for Human Systems work.  Johannes Seemann is a business designer at IDEO focusing on bridging qualitative and quantitative methods in insight generation.