Rethinking theory of change
19 November 2019 at 8:38 am
A theory of change is your hypothesis of how your activity will lead to the intended impact that you are seeking to achieve. But have you ever been frustrated that what you end up with doesn’t assist you in understanding how to implement the right strategies to bring about this intended change? This frustration was at the root of a rethink about how we use theory of change as a tool to drive social change, writes Kevin Robbie from Think Impact.
Up until recently I’ve been in the camp that saw the difference between a program logic and a theory of change as being some vowels and consonants. The terms are used interchangeably and often to describe the exact same thing. But now, within Think Impact we are looking at these two tools for driving social change as quite different.
For the past six months we’ve been testing and trialling our new approach to theory of change and the positive feedback has encouraged us to share more widely.
The rethink of how we use theory of change was based on three key factors:
- Experience – within our team we’ve helped develop more than 500 theory of change processes. We realised many of us have practical experience trying to implement the approach in organisations we’ve worked for and honest reflection tells us that sometimes this had been hit or miss.
- Implementation science – we are currently working in partnership with the Centre for Evidence and Implementation on a project that has led to deep discussions on how to integrate evidence and learning from implementation science into impact-led design. As the foundation of effective impact-led design, we know there is scope to improve the practical application of theory of change.
- High performing impact organisations – through a series of recent projects supporting for-purpose organisations to become impact-focused high-performing organisations we have had cause to reflect on our own learning on the importance of narrative to tell a story of how change is occurring.
This led us to develop this new approach to theory of change, outlined below:
As a taste of our new approach we have highlighted five key things to think about when going through the process of developing your theory of change:
- Evidence base – There is a growing evidence base of both “what works” and “how it works” that should be informing social policy and practice. When seeking to tackle any issue start by basing your design process in evidence of what works and why, within the context you are operating in.
- Intended impact – Whether you are funding projects, designing services or developing your strategy, you should be explicit and clear up front about the change you intend to make and use this to drive your design thinking.
- Enabling factors – Be clear on the platforms or conditions that you need for your intended impact to be achieved. For example, if you are carrying out place-based work, then the emerging evidence tells us that the following needs to be in place for it to work well: a) common agenda amongst key actors, b) continuous communication, c) mutually reinforcing activities, d) shared measurement, and e) a neutral backbone.
- Mechanisms – It is not enough to simply identify what activities you will run to bring about change; instead you must consider also how activities will be run (modality) and how many times they will be done (dosage), alongside the stakeholders perceptions of how the activities will bring about change (reasoning). These issues can be quite technical but asking yourself what the evidence tells you about these key questions will assist in designing higher impact approaches.
- Implementation – The final critical step in developing your hypothesis is to think through the implementation considerations (in implementation science these are key considerations around how to conceptualise and evaluate successful implementation). Everything is then drawn together into a series of implementation strategies that will assist you to drive forward the change you are seeking.
As people have become familiar with the new approach a key question has arisen:
What is the role of a program logic with this new theory of change approach?
We still see a program logic as a valuable tool, but we see it now as a supporting aspect of a theory of change not an interchangeable replacement for it.
The overall approach to a theory of change still has to have logic running through it in order to avoid miracle leaps. However, a program logic can be one component of a new theory of change that assists in communicating the hypothesis to a particular audience. A program logic also supports the development of your outcomes framework to enable you to measure and manage your impact more effectively.
Our view is that this new approach to theory of change is what can drive an improved change management approach within organisations and within the social policy arena.
About the author: Kevin Robbie is a director at Think Impact with over 25 years experience working in the for-purpose sector. Kevin leads Think Impact’s work in impact-led design, assisting government, philanthropy and for-purpose organisations to design better services or approaches. He was previously executive director at Social Ventures Australia and CEO of United Way Australia. Prior to that he has been an advisor to the UK government, chief executive of one of Scotland’s leading social enterprises and a consultant to the UK Big Lottery Fund.