First of all, I want to say thanks to the people who’ve signed up to follow this blog and have waited patiently for a long time for me to say something. I’ve been spending time working with clients, learning by doing and developing my practice in helping organisations working for social aims.

And also thanks to WordPress, who put some rather inappropriate adverts on here, but that at least prompted me to get on with writing this post. For those of you who have signed up based on those adverts, you may want to reconsider? I don’t think this blog will be quite what you’re looking for!

I do feel that now I am starting to have stuff to share – at least about the questions that have raised doubts but that have led me to think more deeply and try out new things; what I’ve taken from working in different settings; and some of the inspiring conversations and reading that have opened more territory to explore.

So a first set of thoughts on what has been the core of my work for the last two years – theory of change.

Theory of change (ToC) is the approach that everyone is trying to use now for designing, planning and evaluating programmes. Last year, I did a review  for DFID on how people were working with it. From a methodological point of view, ToC is not difficult to grasp, but from a process point of view, people have struggled to get what they would like to from it. If they approach it from a ‘technical’ angle, it doesn’t feel that different to other planning tools, especially, close cousins like the Logical Framework, which ToC is supposed to be different from.

Creative conversation is as important as ‘technique’ in ToC

ToC is not just a planning methodology – it is as much about the experience of having a really good, energising group conversation that makes you, your colleagues, partners and stakeholders think again, in depth, about the important stuff.

At its heart, it is about having critical conversations about how we connect with people within our organisation, with people in other organisations, as well people in the communities we’re trying to help, to try to influence conditions for positive change in the challenging situations they face.

The irony is that we keep losing sight of this because the programme management procedures, routines and professional ways of thinking and working, solidify around us when we organise into groups and structures, and stop us from keeping those creative connections flowing.

ToC isn’t really different to what Log-Frames were originally intended to do, it is just that these have become a bit procedural for people… See the discussion we had last year about the findings of the DFID review

The experiential and dialogue aspect is why you can learn all about theory of change from a book, but you won’t really get a feel for it until you take the plunge and try to facilitate or participate in a structured group dialogue using theory of change thinking. We experienced this at a workshop on ToC for Hivos Latin America that I facilitated with Inigo Retolaza in Costa Rica in June. Hivos is developing a lot of useful material on TsoC and social change (more about this in another post).

Assumptions and ToC

Because ToC is about sharing mental models about how change happens, people often struggle with the ‘assumptions’ part of ToC. People debate quasi-technical definitions – are they ‘cause-effect hypotheses’, are they values, are they beliefs? Assumptions are all of these because they flow from the deeply-held worldviews of all the people involved in the conversation.

Basically, they are statements about what people in the group believe to be ‘true’ about a situation (see Ortiz and Giles 2010 for more on this). There are usually a multitude of assumptions informing a programme, especially if it is designed and implemented by a number of different organisations and communities in a variety of settings.  These can range from how the context is understood, different logics and worldviews about how societal change is understood to happen, how cause and effect are understood, to how programmes should be designed.

Documenting assumptions is helpful if we use them as markers for whatever interpretations we are making at that point in the initiative. They can help us to look out for certain factors or conditions that are important for the success of our initiative. But you have to remember that assumptions are likely to go out of date, as the situations that we are attempting to describe are likely to change, often rapidly.

Theory of change thinking is really just a structured way of being able to articulate these ideas, share them, debate them from diverse points of views and see how they help or hinder us as a group from seeing the possibilities for supporting change. The most important perspective we need to consider is that of the people we are hoping to improve life for, so we have to work extra hard to bring those views in, in appropriate ways.

Reality-checking the context rather than abstract logic modelling

ToC thinking starts from a broad, context-based perspective. It challenges you to think about what change is needed in the context to support your ultimate aim before you decide what to do. ToC thinking requires identifying what other actors will do to help support the overall aim, and the factors in the context – both within and outside your control – that could affect the success of your initiative in influencing the changes you seek.

This requires a disciplined focus on the realities of the context and people’s lives, including power and politics, rather than working from an idealised or abstract model.

Learning frameworks not models

So, ToC doesn’t give you a model of the world, but it should hopefully give you a framework for a better-informed set of conversations about change and what you might do about it. It also gives you a basis for continuing your creative conversations by learning from what happens as a result of your actions and initiatives, whether you intended them to happen or not. TsoC help us to learn if we remember that they are a subjective and imperfect snapshot of our views and intentions, at that point in time. They need to be reviewed often, assumptions revisited and debated again.

Many other ideas flow from these starting points. There is the question on the role of evidence in ToC, and I’ve been getting some very interesting insights from working more in-depth with complexity, theory of change and programme strategies in highly complex settings. So I’ll do my best to share some thoughts on these – more regularly than I have done so up to now!