reflecting on being radical: integrating theories of change as practice

last week, craig valters published new work on theories of change. he calls not for a new tool but for a more careful approach to practicing and engaging in development. that is, changing the state of the world for someone. and learning from it. and, ideally, communicating that learning. (craig is pessimistic that we are near actually ushering in a ‘learning agenda’ to replace the ‘results agenda.’ on this, i hope he is wrong.)


in this post, i aim to echo and expand on the idea of theories of change as allowing “space for critical reflection” (p. 4) and to push back slightly on two of the outlined ‘key principles’ of a theory of change approach: being ‘locally led’ and thinking ‘compass, not map.’


i should make two disclaimers, given points raised both in the paper and in suvojit’s follow-up blog. the first is a musing, though i have adopted the ‘theory of change’ language along with the herd. i wish we could still revise it to ‘hypotheses of change’ or ‘ideas of change’ or ‘stuff that might matter because we thought hard about it, looked at what had been done before, and talked to people about what could be done now.’ or something else catchier but far more tentative and humble than ‘theory.’ alas.


the second is a confession. i really like boxes and arrows. not as the definitive product associated with a theory of change but as some means of organizing ideas that people can stand around, look at, point to, and say, “have we learned anything about how this arrow really works?” while i wouldn’t want to foist the need for a visual on anyone, especially if it is just going to end as a bad flowchart, i feel i should at least lightly advocate that a visual can be a useful tool for learning and may be more friendly to revisit than a lengthy narrative. and be pretty.


spaces for critical reflection

i strongly agree with craig’s focus on process and learning, emphasizing the theory of change as an approach, not just a product. it requires a change in practice, not deliverables. lukewarm commitment will relegate theory of change products to templates and checklist items to complete: as valters warns against, suvojit worries about, and duncan green and others have questioned in the past. instead, the approach requires a physical and mental and temporal space actively held open to think and reflect and revisit.


to possibly only reword what has already been said: theories of change products will only matter for learning if the approach requires them to be as important at the beginning of the project as they are at the end. ‘doing’ theories of change requires thinking about the end at the beginning — but also to look backwards later.


theory of change products (narratives, diagrams) can and should be used to help organize learning along the way — whether revisited as part of the program diaries (great idea!) or as other structured (partly by the product), purposive ways of stopping the good work and reflecting on how we initially thought things would be working and how they are actually progressing. for me, with a goal of generating lessons from which others can learn, documentation is important. some may see this as a hindrance to engagement, so that remains an open question for each organization. in any case, i like craig’s questions related to ‘prioritizing learning,’ which encourage organizations (and donors) to be both explicit and transparent about learning goals (what, for whom, to make what decisions) from the outset.


one idea is to think about, as products, an ex ante theory of change and an ex post version. (the process of) producing these would, done well, encourage learning around where the two versions differ and would serve as a way to help organize learning about those differences. by “done well,” i emphasize my own principle of a theory of change approach, which is that a theory of change is never one person’s all-nighter, assembling something to submit as part of a report. to the extent that donors may play a role in encouraging grantees to reflect on how they thought change would happen and how it actually did (if, indeed, it did), they should. this means not just telling grantees to do this but facilitate in terms of finances and time and and convening power and guidance, as needed. active reflection is needed; sometimes external pressure can bring this about.


being locally led

by pushing back on being “locally led,” i am obviously not going to suggest that local voices and opinions shouldn’t be central to the process of figuring out what kind of change needs to brought about and how to go about it. but i would like to bring in some nuance as well generally advocate being led by multiple perspectives — top-down and bottom-up — rather than a singular idea of ‘the local.’ craig suggests some mild discomfort with this as well in his footnote that warns us against assuming there is an archetypal and wise end-user with all the answers.


first, local-ness is diverse (which almost goes without saying). iteratively, this diversity needs to be reflected in a theory of change process — and theories of change need to reflect this diversity. (with an evaluation hat on, what i am partly saying is that sub-groups in which heterogeneous treatment effects are expected should be visible early in the theory of change process.) beyond the tired statement that ‘the local’ — as possible recipients of a program/policy — is not a homogeneous mass, a key distinction is between ‘intended beneficiaries’ and ‘front-line implementers.’ both are local in important ways and the views and motivations of both should be reflected in theory of change processes and products (as noted by pritchett et al in considering structured experiential learning.)


second, local thinking can be constrained precisely by local-ness. researchers and practitioners are important conduits for transferring in good ideas from ‘there’ to consider whether they may work ‘here.’  being ‘locally rooted’ or ‘locally grounded’ may be slightly closer to my sense of an ideal than being ‘locally led,’ in part because…


third, i’d like to think there is still a role for theory (or Theory) in program theory and theories of change. again, practitioners and researchers play a role in helping to negotiate an intelligible space between (1) these ideas, (2) what cannot be done in a given local context (because of lacking physical, human, financial resources), and (3) what people don’t know if can be done locally because it has not been tried here in a particular way. ‘the local’ can best describe the various ways in which things have been happening and are critical voices in determining what should happen and generating ideas about what could happen — but it is not the only source of ideas and inspiration and energy and convening power.


thinking compass, not map

i understand this impulse for this principle — a reaction to over-design and over-planning — but i am going to push back a little anyway. or at least advocate for a compass plus a really amazing postcard* from the destination. my feeling is that organizations spend a lot of time talking about what they are going to do but not in visualizing or describing what the changed state of the world will look like and how people will behave differently in it if change actually happens. this (considering individuals, here and here) should be specific exercise within the approach, asking for different stakeholders: what do i do now when i wake up and go about my day and how will i do things differently if the intended good change comes about?


the discussion about how things will be different — and how we’ll know they are different — should be central to conversations about how change may happen. this can help to uncover some of the assumptions that are so important for theories of change. in addition, a detailed description of what change or success will look like is fairly important for understanding whether we’ve gotten to where we want to go (and if not, why not).


knowing where you’re going is different from saying you’re certain about how you will get there and when. over-planning and over-design reflect, i think, (donor-forced?) over-confidence about the route and mode and timing of transport. this is distinct from over-clarity about where you are trying to go, which is too often lacking. by all means, “go west;” carry with you some way of telling whether you’ve made it to oregon or not.


in sum

to briefly conclude, a big thank you to craig, who has done a great job laying out some of the promises and concerns of embracing theories of change as an approach to practicing and doing change. i echo the call to emphasize learning (with a distinction between failure to learn and the failure of a project to deliver) and add a few ideas about how the theory of change (as a product) might structure the learning process and its outputs. i explicitly call for the product to play a renewed role after the project launch, as a way of encouraging the process. i push back a bit on being ‘locally led,’ towards being ‘locally grounded’ and/but ‘multi-perspectival.’ i also push back on ‘compass, not map’ in favor of ‘compass and postcard,’ with explicit intent to encourage practitioners and researchers to have a good idea where they are going and to draw and annotate a (not the) map along the way.

*for jim gaffagan fans, this would be a postcard that goes beyond saying “this city has big buildings, i like food, bye” (around minute 2:40).

Published by hlanthorn

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-1899-4790

4 thoughts on “reflecting on being radical: integrating theories of change as practice

  1. Hi Heather,

    Thanks so much for this great response.

    On disclaimers

    Yep, the theory of change term might not be helpful in some ways. But it is in others. ‘Theory’ implies we have to think really hard about it, even if what we end up with is not a theory in the social science sense of the word.

    On diagrams, flow charts

    Fair enough, they can look pretty. It’s when they’re hideous and confusing I’m less inclined to support them. They also are never enough in themselves. A diagram is not in itself a Theory of Change.

    On being ‘locally-led’

    You accurately note my mild discomfort. I agree with all the points you made there. But here’s a few points anyway:

    The development industry is so unbalanced in lots of ways and these principles seek to readdress that. I think parts of your critique of localness applies to points on process and learning too – it’s not ONLY about those things, but we tend to focus on products and accountability (more like accountancy) so much, the case has to be made for the other side strongly. In writing the principles I didn’t want to go for ‘a bit of this, a bit of that’ approach as I think it can cloud acknowledgement of the fundamental imbalances we see, that I think a Theory of Change approach can help with. So in that respect the principles are also a bit of a provocative device to stimulate (re) thinking on these issues.

    That said, I think being locally led does not necessarily mean someone in a rural village in Bangladesh for example. Their perspective, if the programme involves them, is absolutely essential (and is simply not addressed anywhere near enough in my opinion). But being locally led can mean more than direct ‘beneficiaries’ (my word I hate that word). As my colleague David Booth and Sue Unsworth have written, being locally-led means being a) locally-owned: that is, ‘focused on issues and problems that have local salience, both for potential beneficiaries and for at least some individuals and groups with the power to support, influence or block change’ and b) Locally negotiated and delivered: ‘this means giving priority to local leadership and local capacity in the search for solutions to contextually identified problems’

    On compass not map (and postcards)

    Agree with you again. As I mention in the paper, this is not about ditching planning. But it is about avoiding certainty, bringing more modesty into our understanding of social change processes, etc.

    Overall, thank you for a really thought provoking blog. You’ve given nuance to these principles which I (maybe deliberately) avoided in the paper itself.

    PS. Who needs capital letters anyway?!


    1. thanks so much for a well-considered reply! in short, i agree with everything and fully acknowledge that you were trying to do some rebalancing and provoking. it will be great if some case studies emerge about trying to put these principles into practice, where some of the additional nuance (and ideally humility, as well) will come out. and, indeed, where they are probably better suited to come out. it will also be great to see how the locally led is interpreted and put into action; i do hope it is in line with booth’s and unsworth’s definition. i worry that it will not be but we shall see!

      bottom line folks, craig doesn’t like your ugly pictures.

      (actually, real bottom line: if you are going to make diagrams as part of a theory of change approach, please become familiar with ways of introducing it in digestible chunks and help your readers/audience understand what is going on through a narrative.)


Share your thoughts, please! The more minds, the merrier

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: