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Exploding cylinders, complexity and evaluating behaviour change

Last July, and an oxygen cylinder aboard a Qantas plane suffered what could be considered a relatively rare “behaviour change” in that it exploded, ripping a large hole in the fuselage. Following a stringent follow-up investigation (or evaluation), the cause of the exploding cylinder still remains a mystery. The news item reported that investigators even pressure tested the remaining gas bottles and none failed.
What this shows is that no matter how much knowledge we have about something, or no matter how many tests we replicate, some things remain a mystery. The reason behind the exploding cylinder are complex, and understanding the reason cannot be through attempting to replicate the problem by studying other cylinders, but through understanding the emergent properties related to that particular exploding cylinder. If only cylinders could tell a story? Except for the fact that this one is lost somewhere in the ocean!
So, what does that have to do with evaluating behaviour change? Well, people, like oxygen cylinders, are often considered similar and predictable in that what works for one is considered to work for others. But in reality, we are more like the “exploding cylinder” in that we often react unpredictably, or in a complex and unique manners, when placed in different situations. As such, it is hard to know what parameters to evaluate in behaviour change programs, as we cannot necessarily predict the outcome.
In understanding the reason for a change, what is important is asking the “one that changed”. If only investigators could get the story from the most significant (or exploding) cylinder? In evaluating behaviour change programs, we need to be more open to emergent properties, some which may be instantaneous and highly observable (like the exploding cylinder) and others that may occur over a longer term, and less visible.

| March 10th, 2010 | Posted in Behaviour Change, complexity, Evaluation |

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