this post is also available, lightly edited, here.
i have been thinking a lot about ‘theories of change’ this week (just did some presenting on them here!). actually, i have been thinking more about ‘conceptual models,’ which was the term by which i was first introduced to the general idea (via vic strecher in conceptual models 101) and the term i still prefer because it implies more uncertainty and greater scope for tinkering than does ‘theory.’ (i accept that ‘theory of change‘ has been branded and that i have to live with it but i don’t have to like it. when people start calling them “tocks,” it’ll be a really, really bad day. i can deal with the acronym “ToCs” but please, world, don’t pronounce it “tocks” or switch to writing “tox” or something else dreadful.)
regardless of the term, the approach of thinking seriously about how behavioral, social and economic change will happen is really important — and often overlooked during the planning stages of both projects/programs/policies and evaluations. (too often, the intricacies of how change actually happened (or didn’t) are left to academic speculation in the discussion section of an evaluation paper — a certainly not informed by talking systematically to those people who were intended to benefit from the program).
i think there is growing recognition that building a theory of change is something that should happen, at least in part, backwards (among other places where this is discussed is in ‘evidence-based policy‘ with the idea of a ‘pre-mortem‘ and ‘thinking step-by-step and thinking backwards‘). that is, you start with the end goal (usually some variant of ‘peace,’ ‘satisfaction,’ ‘wellbeing,’ ‘capabilities,’* etc) in mind and work backwards as to how you are going to get there. actually, it’s a bit more like the transcontinental railroad, where you start from both ends (where you are and where you want to get) and build backwards and forwards until the ideas meet in the middle and you have a sense of what needs to be done and what assumptions underlie one step translating to the next.
in teaching us about not only conceptual models but grant writing, vic used the analogy of an island. the island was where you wanted to get — the state of the world as things would be once your intervention was rolled-out, fully operational and lasting change affected. it wasn’t enough to just say that people would have more money or would be healthier. you had to describe how the state of the world would look, feel, and operate. how would someone’s day look in the new state of the world? what would be different about the way they undertook their daily activities, or indeed what their daily activities would be? then, once you had the new state of the world/island in mind, you could make sense of where you were currently (through one of those ex ante ‘needs assessment‘ things i so rarely hear about in planning development projects or building theories of change) and what needed to be done to build a bridge from where you are to the island.
some of this work in understanding where people are and where ‘they,’ and therefore, ‘we’ want to get is meant to be generated through the nebulous terms “stakeholder engagement” and “formative work.” i think we discuss much less how formative engagement and stakeholder work (probably not a great sign of specificity that all the words can be mixed up so easily) actually translates into a robust theory of change. in this regard, i have learnt quite a bit from product and engineering books like the inmates are running the asylum. these are books about product and service design and the ‘user experience’ — far-out concepts we probably (almost certainly) don’t spend enough time thinking about in ‘development’ and something that would probably really benefit our theories of change in detailed and ‘best-fitting’ a particular situation… not to mention, you know, benefit the beneficiaries.
one of the tools i like best is what is, effectively, imaginary prospective users — in cooper‘s terminology, ‘personas.’ here’s the idea, as i see it translating to development and theories of change. we know stakeholders are important but they cannot (realistically or effectively) all be in the same room, at the same table, at the same time. nor can they all be called up each time we make a small tweak in program design or the underlying assumptions. and, it is likely the intended beneficiaries that are hardest to call up and the most likely not to be at the table. but we can use personas to bring them to the table, so that what happened in ‘the field’ most certainly does not stay there.
let’s say that for a given project and evaluation, widowed women are a key sub-group of interest.
forget widowed women.
start thinking about “mary.”
mary is a widowed woman.
her husband had been a carpenter and died of c cause. she lives in x place while her n children live in z other places and provide her with s amount of support. mary can be a composite of widowed women you did meet in the field during deep, household level needs assessment and formative in-depth interviews with intended beneficiaries. that’s how you might have a picture of mary and know that she lives in h type of house, with e regular access to electricity and have g goats and l other livestock. it’s how you know she’s illiterate and has a mobile phone onto which she never adds credit. it’s how you know what time she wakes up, what her morning chores are, who she talks to, when and whether she has time to go to the market, how she gets her information, what aspects of her environment will enable change and which will hinder it, and so on.
so, all potential beneficiaries can’t be at the table but personas of key subgroups and heterogeneities of interest can be. if everyone in the room for the design (intervention and evaluation) process is introduced to the personas, then they can speak up for mary. she still gets a voice and the ability to ask, ‘what’s in all this for me?’ will she be able to deal with an extra goat if she gets one as part of a livestock program? does she have the means of transport to collect cash as part of a transfer program? is her neighborhood safe for walking so she can follow up on the health information you provide? is mary going to give a hoot about the sanitation information you provide her?
mary’s obstacles need to be dealt with in your program design and the places where mary might have trouble engaging with the program need to be put into your theory of change and monitored as part of your M&E (& e) plan. will mary help you think everything? no, of course not — she’s good but she’s not that good. but it’ll probably be nearer to something that can actually work (and don’t forget that street-level workers, other implementers and high-level stakeholders should have personas too!).
please invite mary to the table when you’re designing your intervention and constructing your theory of change. it doesn’t replace the need for actual monitoring and actually asking for beneficiary, implementer and stakeholder feedback.
but have mary describe to you how her life will be different (better!) with your program in place, how the actual structure of her day and decision-making have changed now that she’s on the aforementioned goal island. you’ll be a little closer to making it so.
this post is massively indebted to danielle giuseffi, who introduced me to some of the books above and with whom i have discussed building models more than anyone else! still one of my favorite business-partners-in-waiting, d-funk, and i still like our behavioral bridge.
*yes, i know that ‘capabilities’ were initially from amartya sen and that i should have linked to this. but for planning approaches, i find the 10 laid out by nussbaum more accessible.