A structured approach
Theory of change is a structured and systematic process for thinking things through.
The issues we are trying to tackle are complex, so there is a risk that our reflections can become too open-ended, unfocussed and not produce results. The theory of change process gives us a structure to prevent this, and the key elements of this structure are outlined below.
We rely on a few standard components. Theory of change, like similar approaches such as logic modelling and log frames, is associated with a set of terminology (activities, outcomes, impact and so on).
While this irritates some people, the reality is that all projects, programmes and campaigns do have these components; and distinguishing between them is always useful because it gives us a common language that helps people work together.
Confusion can be avoided by having a reasonable understanding of what the terms mean without being too purist about them. A glossary is provided at the end of this guide.
We address components and questions in sequence (backwards).
It is best to think about the components of your service or campaign in sequence. Most advice is to start from the impact you want to achieve and work backwards to consider the intermediate steps. A process sometimes referred to as ‘backwards mapping’.
This advice has an obvious rationale, it makes sense to start by defining what we want to achieve and then think about how we do it. By working backwards we ensure our plans are orientated towards achieving impact for beneficiaries.
However, our advice is not to work entirely backwards. Instead we suggest starting with a thorough understanding of the issue you are trying to address and its causes through situation analysis, so you can decide the precise target groups you want to work with.
Then, you do the backwards mapping, starting with impact, moving on to intermediate outcomes, and then to your activities. Finally you think about how your activities are intended to work, which we call ‘mechanisms’ and the ‘quality’ of work you intend to deliver.
Work towards consensus.
Ultimately your process should try to achieve consensus amongst your team. Not a constraining consensus or sense that everything is fixed, but a broad agreement on the key elements of the theory of change. Any major disagreements or misunderstandings should be resolved, and everyone should feel their views have been heard and represented.
By the end of the process, participants should feel a sense of accomplishment in having negotiated some complex issues, and having contributed to a better and clearer understanding about an organisation’s work. We would contend that if people haven’t felt these things then the process hasn’t been quite right.
Often represented as a diagram (optional).
A theory of change process is often focussed on developing a diagram (an example can be found in the Appendix). However, we worry that some people see theory of change as just a diagram or chart; it’s more than this.
Your diagram is best seen as a summary of the process and of your thinking. It is useful for communicating your theory of change and creating diagrams challenges us to be succinct, prioritise and identify overlaps. But the diagram will not capture the entirety of the work, and it is perfectly acceptable to have a theory of change without a diagram.
The process ends with scrutiny and challenge.
We suggest you imagine yourself as your worst enemy and seek to highlight its weaknesses or risks (see Step 10 on identifying ‘assumptions’).
Scrutiny might prompt you to make some immediate changes to your theory of change or to fill in some gaps. Or you might decide that these weaknesses are genuine and that the only way to test them is to test your theory of change against the data you collect. Hence, by challenging your theory of change you can identify the most important research questions for your project, programme or campaign.
Used and updated.
The final feature is that once you have your theory of change you need to use it! Your theory of change should be published and shared widely.
Everyone involved in the programme should be familiar with it, especially the people delivering the work. Your theory of change should be the starting point for further conversations about how things are going, your strategies and your tactics.
You should see theories of change as ‘living documents’. As you collect data, learn and discuss what is happening you should be revisiting your theory of change and potentially updating it.