Our Jargon

We place a premium on defining our terms. Our approach involves rehabilitating a simple set of jargon, turning it from noise – where there is not a shared understanding of the words we use – to signal; where each term is clear, consistent, and useful for operationalizing the work.


The process of helping people use credible evidence to build, share, test, and evolve their mental models about their work and the world in which it takes place. We practice equitable evaluation, defined by the Center for Evaluation Innovation as using evaluation as a tool for advancing equity, involving diversity of teams and cultural appropriateness of methods that reveal drivers of inequity and empower those more affected by the work to shape and own how evaluation happens. Evaluation and learning are both iterative cycles that support emergence. Authentic learning should result in noticeable change.

Mental Model

How we bound, articulate, and visualize any idea about the world around us. Mental models are only approximations of reality, and we should exercise extreme caution when evaluating mental models related to wicked problems or other unsolved issues.

Wicked Problem

Wicked problems have many interacting variables that are evolving in dynamic social systems and contexts with factors that are often incomplete, in flux, and difficult to define. Wicked problems are associated with fast thinking, a jumping-to-conclusions machine where assumptions and biases go unchecked. Wicked problems persist due to biases and assumptions built into the way we process and use data and  because of the structures of power and influence that determine whether mental models actually change. Common wicked problems involve health disparities, racism and discrimination, and poverty and income inequality, but the institutions of philanthropy and evaluation are wicked problems unto themselves.


Credible evidence is not a result, as it’s often understood when we think of research and “evidence-based” practices. Rather, think of evidence as input like in a court of law. This implies a purpose, judgment, choices about what data to include or not, and, most importantly, testimony–people with the credibility to bear witness to the data. This is a critical distinction. Evidence as a conclusion of research has credibility built in as an assumption. It is an answer to a question. A learning-oriented, evaluation context is the opposite; evidence has skepticism built in and must be interrogated through thinking. Building a credible body of evidence is what storytelling looks like in evaluation.


Learning requires and is the product of both evidence and thinking. Evidence alone is just information until people give it structure. A simple model of systems thinking (Cabrera) states that thinking is the emergent property of four patterns: Distinction-making, part-whole System structure, cause-effect Relationships, and Perspectives. We’ll use DSRP as a facilitation tool, making it accessible for different audiences.


Perspective is paramount, as it influences every other pattern of thinking, how we build and use a body of evidence, and the mental models themselves. Equitable evaluation practices give special attention to the role perspective plays in thinking and learning and use it to give scrutiny to the body of evidence we use, particularly numbers that have been processed and packaged in some way. An equitable evaluation will include three essential perspectives:

  • Those who hold decision-making power
  • Those doing the work in the field
  • Those most affected by the work


Combining these critical pieces of jargon, we find evaluation and learning are about changing mental models using evidence and thinking. This is the mission of the Systems Learning™ approach, which builds a body of evidence that inextricably links data with the context of testimony from credible witnesses. Thinking involves distinction-making, zooming in and out, grouping and sorting part-whole system structure, exploring relationships and non-relationships—all from one or more perspectives.

Discover how Apex turns noise to signal and information to insight.