Theories of Change, the muddy middle, and what to do about assumptions

May 10, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Spent a happy 90 minutes last week connecting with a bunch of Oxfam campaigners taking part in its excellent Campaigns and Advocacy Leadership Programme. They had asked to discuss something which already feels a bit last decade – Theories of Change (ToCs).

My random thoughts (powerpoint below) were cautiously worded, because I have a growing fear that in becoming a new orthodoxy, ToCs (like logframes before them) will end up achieving the exact opposite of what they set out to achieve – disempowering rather than empowering; closing down imagination and innovation and turning us all into box-ticking zombies. A classic example of the hype cycle, in other words.

Here’s what I said (much of it familiar to regular readers of this blog, so apologies in advance), and then some of the things that struck me from the ensuing conversation:

We need to distinguish between theories of change (how the system itself is changing, without our involvement) and theories of action (the small differences we can make, usually in alliance with others). If theories of change start by putting us at the centre of everything, that is a serious problem – we almost never are. But I lost that battle, so let’s stick with ToCs.

In summary, ToCs should:

Provide a compass not a map

Aim for a best guess, not best practice

Ask the right questions, not prescribe the answers

Be based on local knowledge, not imported models (unless adapted)

Be iterative – stand back and test every X months, then revise

Incorporate antennae to read the changing external circumstances, and learn from success/failure

Be ‘the captain of the ship’ – Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning and donor relations should be at the service of the ToC, not the other way round!

Now onto the conversation, which clarified a few things for me:

The Bridge: There is a ‘muddy middle’ where you jump from analysis to ‘OK, what do we do?’ Sometimes it feels like the two have little connection, and the resulting business-as-usual campaign could have been designed without bothering with all that context analysis or stakeholder mapping. So we want the analysis to inform the strategy, but I worry if we set out a standard (linear?) way of doing that. The analysis will throw up a great universe of possible actions, which you can filter by thinking ‘what are we good at? What are others already doing better than us? How much difference could it make?’ But there has to be room for magic and creativity and instinct, for trying something crazy and/or new.

My compromise? Narrow the gap between analysis and strategy, but don’t completely bridge it – people need to make the creative leap, but they are less likely to plunge to disaster if the gap is narrower…. So do your stakeholder mapping, identify potential allies, opponents and swingers (see last week’s post), but don’t make it a cookie cutter process.

The Assumptions: With any ToC, a few minutes of serious thought will identify a dozen underlying assumptions behind the ‘if a then b’ framework. See my favourite ToCs cartoon on this. Oxfam’s default assumptions include ‘if we give people (whether communities or decision makers) more and better information, they will take action’ and ‘if enough people get organized, change will happen’, but there are lots of others (the people agree with us, the elites oppose us).

But after you have identified the assumptions, what next? At a minimum, see if research or reflection show them to be false, and maybe keep them in mind when you revisit the strategy, in case experience has done likewise. Then revise your strategy accordingly. But also it’s quite hard for people to identify their own assumptions, which is one of many reasons why getting diverse voices and ‘critical friends’ into the room can help.

Let sleeping ToCs lie? And then the biggest jaw drop moment of the conversation: not one of these seasoned campaigners could recall a campaign team ever getting the initial ToC off the virtual shelf and revisiting it. They are almost always dead documents, that served useful purposes of getting funding or building an initial team, but then they wither and die. If this is true, then maybe we should accept that that is their role, and focus on other ways of iterating and adapting our influencing work. Maybe have mini ToCs that we do every few months, that sit within an unchanging overall one, or think more about our strategic Rules of Thumb, rather than strategic plans.

As I say, a very thought-provoking session.

Some excellent previous research on the ‘Hidden life of ToCs’ here.

More good recent reflections on ToCs from Tom Aston and Thomas Dunmore-Rodriguez.

May 10, 2022
Duncan Green