Right now, it feels like anything can derail everything, so are theories of change still useful?

January 27, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Oxfam’s Thomas Dunmore-Rodriguez

Applying a theory of change approach is hard, and in the current context just got a whole lot harder. Theories of change tend to be abstract, intangible, and largely hypothetical, so given the unpredictability of the COVID-affected world, are they still useful for activists seeking to strategize for positive social change? Recently a group of us, weathered theory of change practitioners and facilitators that we are, put our heads together to share challenges and begin to try to answer this question.

It seems the best theories of change emerge from face-to-face workshop settings, where the ins and outs of socio-political context can be thrashed out. The end result can often remain a fairly sketchy story of change, with lots of untested assumptions, but the beauty is often in the process itself. I remember a complex theory of change mapped across the concentric circles of a socio-ecological model that emerged from a workshop in Brazil (see below). Whilst the diagram itself was largely indecipherable to anyone else, for those of us in the workshop it represented three days of intense conversations around the deep structures underlying discrimination against young black people living in the favelas.

This is common. A theory of change process is generally more useful for the team involved directly, and perhaps less so for others who only get to read the end result. It can force a more inquisitive state of mind, addressing often neglected aspects of context analysis, such as power, hidden influence, social norms and narratives. It helps bring our understanding of how change is really happening into focus, and catalyses adventurous conversations about our role in the world as organisations, and as activists.

For the process to be of good quality, building a theory of change takes time. It is an iterative process of interrogation and building of a common understanding across a group of people. Yet in the online world we now find ourselves in, time waits for no one. Digital overload means that not everyone that needs to be, is actually “in the room”. Engagement ebbs and flows, and there’s less space to express doubts, pose questions and challenge assumptions. In a virtual set-up, there’s an emphasis on productivity, on reaching results more quickly, yet online theory of change workshops seem somehow less suitable for decision-making. The rules of the game, the way conclusions are reached is less clear, less visible.

People feel frustrated that there is not enough space for proper discussion and to reach consensus, definitely an issue here in Latin America where deliberations often spill over from the workshop into dinner and evening chats. Not online they don’t. Follow up from theory of change sessions is also less clear. It seems there is a greater risk of the results of an online workshop immediately gathering dust, rather than being revisited and becoming a live reference for a group of changemakers. With such huge uncertainties in the contexts we are working in at present, attempts to develop a theory of change are likely to need updating almost immediately, yet this doesn’t seem to be common practice. We need methodologies that are effective but also self-explanatory, perhaps less abstract and technical. If participants cannot go back to them, re-enact the process themselves without the need to have someone guiding them, then most likely we’ve failed as facilitators.

So, what is working given all these challenges? One suggestion our group had was to adopt approaches that put a human face and human experience at the centre of our theories of change, making them immediately more meaningful, at a time when many of us are questioning our individual role in making change happen. Methodologies like the Power Walk, which uncovers power and privilege, but also enable us to put ourselves into the shoes of others, to understand more about real-life hurdles, struggles, goals and dreams can enable this. The use of public narrative can help create stronger connections between our own life stories, and the wider change processes we are part of. Human centred design processes change the power dynamics of decision-making and can draw more effectively on participants personal experience to inspire creativity.

People feel frustrated that there is not enough space for proper discussion and to reach consensus, definitely an issue here in Latin America where deliberations often spill over from the workshop into dinner and evening chats.

Tools we commonly apply to theory of change work, such as those for context, problem, stakeholder and power analysis are still helpful, but they need to be applied in a less static way, which recognises the number of curve balls currently being thrown at us. One colleague has a simple tool called “The Wave”, which helps examine factors but also trends. Some are placed on the wave which is already “crashing onto us” and it’s important to make these visible, but in order to be more adaptive to context, it’s those that are behind the crest of the first wave, or even further out on the horizon we should be paying more attention to. Any surfer would say the same!

Approaches that help us challenge our assumptions about how change is happening are perhaps more important than ever. Bringing a diversity of participants, to share different perspectives on the same change process is crucial for that, and yet we consistently fail to get outside our own bubbles. Working online does potentially make it easier to do this, a chance to invite new voices in. When critical friends from other sectors are asked directly to unpick our theories of change, it can be a truly humbling and insightful way to uncover our many assumptions. Another way is to be much more scrupulous in testing the assumptions we make ourselves. Are trainings really going to increase women’s participation? Is more information going to change people’s behaviour? Is a global pandemic going to force governments to take measures to reduce inequality? More often than not it seems theories of change seem to bolster our worldviews rather than challenge them. Perhaps approaches which actively encourage a “paradox mindset”, being forced to consider opposing views, would help us avoid this trap and be more creative and effective.

Approaches that help us challenge our assumptions about how change is happening are perhaps more important than ever.

This is as far as we got. An initial conversation, a sharing of reflections and recognition that we will continue to think about these issues collectively. So, what challenges are you seeing? What successes have you experienced, and what approaches and tools have enabled these? There are of course other approaches out there – design thinking, foresight, scenario exploration – but has anyone found something easy to use, which you can run in a couple of hours online? We agreed that using a theory of change approach is still a useful way to engage critically with how change might happen. A good theory of change process inevitably reveals incorrect assumptions, disagreement, power imbalances and polarities, yet without the right tools, a shift to online working risks sterilising such discussions. That’s a big risk, as it is precisely that depth of analysis we need right now to navigate such complexity and uncertainty.

This blog is based on a couple of very open and honest conversations with ex-Oxfam colleagues Juan Carlos Arita, Stephanie de Chassy, Jennie Richmond and Monica Sanchez de Ocaña. We are continuing to collaborate and share practice and experiences, in the interests of sharpening our skills and learning from each other. 

Update: Great response from Tom Aston here

January 27, 2021
Duncan Green