I have previously advocated, here (and here), for taking a ‘persona’ or character-based approach to fleshing out a theory of change. This is a way of involving a variety of stakeholders (especially those closer to the ground, such as intended beneficiaries and street-level implementer’s) in discussions about program and theory of change development — even when they are not physically at the table, which is not always possible (though encouraged, of course).
This week, I had a new chance to put some of these ideas into action. A few lessons learned for future efforts:
- This activity worked well in small groups. However, it may be too much to ask groups to fully develop their own personae, especially given possible time limits within the confines of a workshop.
- It may be better to have some partially developed characters in mind (for example, that represent differing initial levels of the key outcomes of interest and variation on some of the hypothesized sub-groups of interest (explanatory variables). Groups can then take a shorter amount of time to elaborate — rather than develop — these dossiers and give a name to each of their creations (Mary, Bob, Fatima, etc). Alternatively, developing dossiers (and therefore articulating sub-groups of interest) could be a separate, opening activity.
- Introducing any language about “role-playing” can lead to only one person in a group assuming the role of a given character and the group sort of playing ’20 Questions’ to that character, rather than everyone trying to consider and take on the thoughts, intentions, and decisions and steps a given character might take, confronted with a given intervention (as either a targeted beneficiary or an implementer). The idea is to get the team thinking about the potential barriers and enablers at multiple levels of influence (i.e. assumptions) that may be encountered on the path towards the outcomes of interest.
- Speaking in “I” statements is helpful in helping people try to think like the different adopted personae. I really had to nag people on this in the beginning but I think it was ultimately useful to get people speaking in this way. In relation to this, there may be important lessons from cognitive interviewing (how-to here) practice, to get activity participants to think out loud about the chain of small decisions and actions they would need to take when confronted with a new program or policy.
- I noted a marked tendency this time around for men to only speak for male characters and for women, the same! There may be some creative ways to discourage this (thoughts welcome).
- There are two potential key goals of an activity like this, which should be kept distinct (and be articulated early and often during the activity) even though they are iterative.
- A first relates to Elaborating Activities, that is, to develop a robust intervention, so that nuance to activities and ‘wrap-around’ support structures (to use Cartwright and Hardie’s terminology) and activities can be developed. This can lead to a laundry or wish list of activities — so if is at the brainstorming stage, this can be articulated as an ‘ok’ outcome or even an explicit goal.
- A second relates to Explicating and Elaborating assumptions, filling in all the intermediate steps between the big milestones in a results chain. This second goal is bound up in the process of moving from a log-frame to a robust theory of change (as noted by John Mayne at the Canadian Evaluation Society, this is adding all the arrows to the results chain boxes) as well as a more robust and nuanced set of indicators to measure progress towards goals and uncover mechanisms leading to change.
- A nice wrap-up activity here could include sorting out the assumptions for which evidence is already available and which should be collected and measured as part of research work.
- It remains an important activity to elaborate and verbally illustrate how X character’s routines and surroundings will be different if the end-goals are reached — given that social, environmental, infrastructural and institutional change is often the goal of ‘development’ efforts. This last step of actually describing how settings and institutions may operate differently, and the implications on quotidian life, is an important wrap-up and time needs to be made for it.
Of course, the use of personae (or an agent-based perspective) is only one part of elaborating a theory of change. But it can play an important role in guiding the other efforts to provide nuance and evidence, including highlighting where to fill in ideas from theoretical and empirical work to end up with a robust theory of change that can guide the development of research methods and instruments.
Would be great to hear further ideas and inputs!