What is a theory of change and how do we use it?

August 13, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I’m planning to write a paper on this, but thought I’d kick off with a blog and pick your brains for references, suggestions etc. Everyone these days (funders, bosses etc) seems to be demanding a Theory of Change (ToC), although when challenged, many have only the haziest notion of what they mean by it. It’s a great opportunity, but also a risk, if ToCs become so debased that they are no more than logframes on steroids. So in internal conversations, blogs etc I’m gradually fleshing out a description of a ToC. When I ran this past some practical evaluation Oxfamers, they helpfully added a reality check – how to have a ToC conversation with an already existing programme, rather than a blank sheet of paper?

But first the blank sheet of paper. If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you’ll probably recognize some of this, because it builds on the kinds of questions I ask when trying to understand past change episodes, but throws them forward. Once you’ve decided roughly what you want to work on (andPower and Change cycle that involves a whole separate piece of analysis), I reckon it’s handy to break down a ToC into four phases, captured in the diagram.

Power Analysis

At their heart, most aspects of development  involve a change in power relations (or should do, anyway). Start by asking what is the nature of the redistribution of power involved in the changes we are seeking? Is it primarily about ‘power within’, e.g. helping women acquire the confidence and knowledge to demand their rights; ‘power with’ (collective organization) or ‘power to’ (e.g. supporting CSO advocacy)? There are lots of other ways of slicing the cake, but the point is to have a proper discussion on the nature and (re)distribution of power.

Useful questions include: What is your analysis of the key forces driving/blocking such a change? What economic or political interests are threatened/promoted by the change? Which groups are drivers/blockers/undecided? Is their power formal (eg elected politicians) or informal (traditional leaders, influential individuals)? Is it visible (rules and force) or invisible (in people heads – norms and values) or hidden (behind the scenes influence). Who do the key players listen to (because that may help us decide on our alliance strategy).

Which individuals are likely to play key roles, either as allies or opponents?

Change Hypotheses

On the basis of the power analysis, come up with some hypotheses for how such change might come about. Note that at this point, we are still looking at the process from the outside, rather than discussing our own interventions:

  • How is the change we are discussing likely to take place? Through existing institutions, or is change likely to require greater disruption, even conflict (e.g. the Arab Spring)?
  • What alliances (eg between sympathetic officials or politicians, private sector, media, faith leaders or civil society) could drive/block the change?
  • What would strengthen the good guys and weaken the bad – e.g. research and evidence, pressure from people they listen to (who are they?)  or street protest?
  • Can you foresee any likely ‘critical junctures’: new governments; changes of leadership; election timetables when change is more likely to occur?

Change Strategy

Is that a metaphor or a critical juncture?

Is that a metaphor or a critical juncture?

Up to now, you have been looking at the issue from the outside. Now it’s time to start thinking about what Oxfam can bring to the party, in the shape of a change strategy (aka a Theory of Action). What should our role be?

  • As an active player or through supporting local partners? What combination of on-the-ground programming and advocacy might we try?
  • Can we use Oxfam’s international identity, eg by cross fertilising with experiences from other countries, or international advocacy in support of change?
  • Can we identify some easy wins, however small, that might inject some momentum into the work?
  • Are there some identifiable ‘implementation gaps’ we can work on, which are often easier that starting from scratch.
  • Who are our potential partners – are they ‘usual suspects’ (local civil society organizations and NGOs), ‘unusual suspects’ (private sector bodies, local/national government, faith leaders) or a mixture of both? What could Oxfam’s contribution be eg helping them develop a clearer theory of change; bringing partners together with other actors to build alliances; building particular aspects of their organizational capacity; research support; funding?
  • How can we make sure we are prepared to take advantage of critical junctures when they occur (whether anticipated or as surprises)?

Implement and Evaluate

Now let’s assume that (shock!) we may not get it 100% right from the outset. How often do we plan to step back and review what we’re doing and consider a change of direction? Who is empowered to ‘press the red button’ and call a time out for reflection if there is a sudden change of circumstances (political unrest, new opportunity etc)? How are we going to collect evidence to inform these reviews (through impact diaries and other methods)? How do we communicate with the donor that our logframe may be changing?

And then round we go again – in this formulation, ToCs are not so much a tick box exercise, or logframes on steroids, as a way of working, involving a much higher level of ongoing political and power analysis and adaptation.

That’s all fine and dandy if you’re starting with a blank sheet of paper, but the reality is usually that you’re arriving to help teams review programmes that are already under way, with lots of partners, activities and history. Current staff may have inherited the work and not been involved in any original ToC discussion (if there was one). How do we need to adapt the above to make it useful?

One way that emerged from the discussion is a kind of reverse engineering/back-testing.

  • Take your programme’s current activities, along with the content of the programme documents – initial proposal, assumptions, risks and all the rest, and reconstruct the problems you are trying to address and their underlying causes – there are lots of tools available like problem trees, stakeholder mapping etc
  • Starting from this, revisit your power analysis and come up with a renewed change hypothesis for what you’re working on – including things that
    Early change theorists

    Early change theorists

    are not in the project plan!

  • Based on that change hypothesis, what kind of change strategies (plural) might make sense. Compare these with your current work  – what changes might you want to make to your existing plans and activities and budget allocation to reflect that?
  • Then go into the evaluate and adapt discussion.

Finally, some common traps to avoid:

Death by diagram: a lot of ToC exercises produce a fiendishly complicated diagram with lots of arrows going in all directions. Drawing the diagram can indeed be a really good way to get a group of people’s heads round a change process. But once you’ve drawn it, throw it away, because it will be a scary barrier to thinking for anyone coming new to the work.

It’s all about us: Yes ToCs are supposed to guide our work, but avoid jumping too quickly into ‘what do we do’, rather than spending time analysing the system (power analysis and change hypothesis). You’re almost always likely to be a minor player in a larger drama, so putting ourselves centre stage makes no sense.

A way to make MEL easier: If anything, a good ToC should make monitoring, evaluation and learning more difficult  (but more useful). If you’re just trying to come up with some targets to measure progress, you’re probably on the wrong track (e.g. oversimplifying a system, ignoring critical junctures, exaggerating your importance in the system).

Make sense? All comments, suggestions and links welcome, whether on the theory or (perhaps more important) how to use ToCs in practice.

August 13, 2013
Duncan Green