Evidence-based practice is the gold standard, but it cannot help in uncharted territory.

Working in simple or complicated problems, using evidence-based practice is a no-brainer. But when we try to apply it at the systems level, the wheels start falling off. We fall into the trap of assuming we understand the problem in its entirety. Systems are, by nature, complex. That complexity limits our level of knowing and understanding.

What works in one system may have wildly different results when applied in another.

Enter practice-based evidence

Coined by Ingrid Burkett, this method describes how we can make informed decisions about changing a system while allowing for it’s full complexity.

Step 1: Test small bets

As our level of knowing and understanding is relatively low, we need a way to learn what works.

Start small. Initially your goal is not to change the system, but to prod it. Throw a stone in the water to create small ripples.

Step 2: Notice what happens

Look closely. Get curious.

We are working with small samples, looking for weak signals. Did the system respond the way you expected to? What surprised you? Are there new paths appearing, inviting you forward?

Step 3: Adapt as you go

Follow the weak signals.

Build your evidence base piece by piece. Slowly move forward informed by the feedback of your last movement. Keep your eyes towards the shore while staying attuned to the currents flowing around you.

“We are crossing the river by feeling for stones” – Deng Xiaoping