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Theory of Change

Aim of the method/approach

  • Developing a plausible ToC clearly outlining the kind of assumptions and choices made, helps initiatives/organizations and other change actors to understand how their work and their relationships contribute to complex, long-term social change.
  • It provides a framework which can be used to plan and update activities, conduct stakeholder dialogues, learn from experiences, and communicate the extent of, and reasons for, success and failure.

When to use it?
This approach is useful mostly at the planning phase of an intervention, but if used properly, remains useful throughout the process.

How difficult is it to use it?
Easy – moderate – for experienced users/facilitators

Benefits

  • Forms a good basis for strategic and operational plans, and for M&E
  • Helps to understand the challenges and opportunities available to an initiative/organisation
  • Helps to set realistic goals, clarify accountabilities and establish a common understanding of used strategies

Issues to be aware of

  • Change is not linear. A ToC needs to be adapted over time in response to a changing context.
  • Key stakeholders should be closely involved in developing the ToC as this creates ownership of the process and ensures that the initiative/organisation is relevant and useful.

Description of the approach

‘Theories of Change are the ideas and hypotheses (“theories”) people and organizations have about how change happens. These theories can be conscious or unconscious and are based on personal beliefs, assumptions and a necessarily limited, personal perception of reality’ (van Es et al., 2015: 12).

A Theory of Change (ToC) is a strategic process to make assumptions about how change happens. This can result on a ToC product, often visualized. ToC discussions may touch on areas such as how changes in behaviour happen (individually and in groups), how shifts in the balance of power occur, and the role of state and civil society. At the heart of a good ToC is the explicit inclusion of values underlying views or perspectives on how change happens, and the assumptions around change and the drivers of change.

Assumptions explain our thought processes, reasoning and how we arrive at certain conclusions. They are hard to articulate because they are deeply held perceptions that have been taken for granted. There are types of assumptions about:

Causal links: These are links between changes at different levels in the change pathway (more related to the internal logic input-activities-output-outcome-impact pathway). They are fairly obvious and easy to make explicit. Example: Providing agricultural extension will lead to improved agricultural production.

Operations and the external context: For example, there may be assumptions about (lack of) political stability or freedom of expression and what might happen in the future based on trends and developments.

Paradigm or world view: This is about assumptions at a much higher (macro) level, e.g. social change best occurs by civil society demanding and building responsive government.

Dominant belief systems in society: Dominant beliefs inform judgments about what is appropriate and feasible in a specific context e.g. in relation to the different roles men and women play in society. 

Source: Adapted from Guijt, 2013

Examples and useful tools

  • Find some examples of Theories of Change on TheoryofChange.org
  • Changeroo allows you to create Theories of Change, in collaboration with stakeholders, and to present these in an interactive and engaging way. Or take a look at some other ToC tools.

Steps needed when using the tool

1. Identify the purpose of the ToC
Ideally, the purpose of your ToC is determined by you and key stakeholders before carrying out the situation analysis. Identifying the purpose will enable you to decide who to involve in the process, the level of detail of the ToC, and the questions you need to ask at each step of the process. According to van Es et al. (2015), a ToC process can be aimed at different levels (see figure) and used for different purposes, including: for programme and project design; to review and improve an existing initiative and underlying assumptions in response to internal and external changes; as a basis for (collaborative) monitoring, evaluation and (related) learning; to review the suitability of scaling initiatives; for strategic learning design and knowledge generation. An important part of identifying the purpose is to remain focused and realistic in what you set out to achieve.

2. Develop the vision and define the desired change
After the situation analysis, try to visualize, along with your stakeholders, the desired change you want to see in the future, taking into consideration the findings from the various analyses done earlier (e.g. problems/issues analysis, institutional and stakeholder analyses, identification of future trends and opportunities). The vision you create must be within the bounds of possibility, reflecting the complex and dynamic nature of the environment in which the initiative/organization operates. Visioning, a tool used to create a shared vision, is particularly helpful.

Step 3. Identify domains of change
After having defined the desired change, try to identify domains of change, where you and your stakeholders believe change is most needed. These include medium- to long-term changes such as a change in behaviour, relationships, capabilities, formal and informal institutions. A key guiding question could be: Who and/or what needs to change for the envisaged change to come about? One way of going about this is to pick out for each domain the main factors that keep coming up in your discussions with stakeholders and see if they are in line with the capabilities and competencies of the initiative/organization.

Step 4. Identify strategic priorities
This step is about strategically analysing and deciding on priorities and the domains of change where you can have the most influence. It is about answering the question: What changes can we best influence within the next few (say, three to five) years? Ritual dissent is an effective tool to help you explore and identify which strategic options will be most effective and how they can be improved.

Step 5. Develop pathways of change
Once the strategic priorities have been identified, develop pathways of change that make explicit your assumptions about how change happens. The pathways developed should show the relationship between the activities, and intermediate and long-term changes. To develop pathways, you need to work backwards from your desired future to what needs to be done to change your current reality. It means envisaging how the change process will develop over time. The change management model, developed by Kotter (2007) can be used to identify pathways of change areas to implement organizational change (see Chapter 4 section ‘Managing change competency’ in the M4SDI book). The Cynefin framework is also useful to identify the level of complexity and related strategies. Particularly for complex issues, where cause and effect relationships cannot yet be identified, it is important to prioritize a range of strategies or safe fail experiments, and monitor these closely in collaboration with stakeholders, so as to be able to adapt in response to what works and what emerges.

As mentioned earlier, you also need to check your assumptions regularly. Some questions to ask include:

  • Are the strategic priorities identified the right ones?
  • Do we need to revisit our expected changes?
  • Do we need to include other stakeholders?
  • What kind of conditions and capacities do we need for the pathways of change to take hold?

After answering these questions, develop pathways for each strategic priority identified. Try to include text explanations to show the richness of the complexity.

Step 6. Review and adapt the Theory of Change (ToC)
Each step in the process so far has most likely resulted in changes in the overall picture. It is typical for a ToC that is being mapped to be revised several times before it provides a complete and clear picture of your change effort. Test whether the most relevant changes and strategies are included, that there are linkages between the strategies, short-term and longer-term changes are logical, and important assumptions are clear. If you didn’t get the chance to develop the map along with (all) stakeholders directly involved in the change process, try to share the latest version of your ToC with them. It is also worthwhile consulting experts in the field. Discuss whether your key stakeholders share your vision and main assumptions about the change process, the logic of linkages between strategies and results/outcomes, and the choice of strategies. Based on the discussions, you might need to revise your ToC.

For the ToC to be truly effective, it has to be firmly anchored into the strategic guidance process. This also entails using it as the basis for M&E as discussed in Chapter 8 of the M4SDI book. In this way, the ToC can be used in learning and decision-making, revised regularly and adapted to reflect change. Engaging stakeholders in this process is crucial for enhancing impact.

Sources

  • Guijt, I. (2013) ToC Reflection Notes 3: Working with Assumptions in a Theory of Change Process. Available from: http://tinyurl.com/hbdl5h3 [accessed 17 February 2017]. 
  • Kotter, J.P. (2007) ‘Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail’, Harvard Business Review. Available from: http://tinyurl.com/jb37pu8 [accessed 17 January 2017].
  • Kusters, C.S.L. et al (2017). Managing for Sustainable Development Impact: an Integrated Approach to Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation. Wageningen, Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation, Wageningen University & Research, and Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing.
  • Van Es, M., Guijt, I., and Vogel, I. (2015) Hivos ToC Guidelines: Theory of Change Thinking in Practice - A Stepwise Approach, Hivos, The Hague. Available from: http://tinyurl.com/hr53xh2 [accessed 29 December 2016].