How do we choose the most promising theory of change? Building on the context-intervention 2×2

December 9, 2016 5 By Duncan Green

One of the slides from my standard HCH presentation that resonated most during the many conversations and book launches in the US was the 2×2 on which kinds of interventions are compatible with different contexts. I first blogged about this a year ago, when the 2×2 emerged during a workshop of aid wonks, but the recent discussions have added some nice extra ideas to what this diagram does/doesn’t tell us:


Top Right: If you are confident about both your understanding of the context, and ability to run the intervention, you may be in the top right quadrant, where traditional linear approaches can work. Get out logframes and project toolkits. But Harvard’s Salimah Samji worries about ‘false quadrant syndrome’, whereby everyone thinks they’re in the top right, heaves a sigh of relief and says ‘great, we can just carry on as usual’. But what about hubris – they don’t know what they don’t know? What are the signals that you’re confidence is unwarranted and you need to look at the other quadrants? One might be if unexpected stuff keeps happening all around you (suggesting your confidence on context was unwarranted), or if your project keeps going wrong (ditto on intervention).

Top Left: This feels like where a lot of the adaptive management crowd are headed (see yesterday’s post). If you’re doing cash transfers in Somalia, and people have to keep fleeing the violence, the key is to have rapid feedback and response, enabling you to move your operations to where they have run to – you probably don’t need to rethink the merits of cash transfers.

What’s noticeable is how much more comfortable and active the aid business is above the line than below it. Below the line corresponds to aid peeps acknowledging uncertainty over their interventions – it seems the call for humility, especially about our own role, is a tough one for a lot of organizations. Adaptive Management is dipping a toe in the water of the tyranny-is-the-absence-of-complexitybottom right, through things like PDIA (Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation). But I see no-one coming to the table on the bottom left (‘you don’t know where you are + you don’t know what you’re doing’). That’s where positive deviance comes into its own, but no-one seems to be doing that, probably because it is all about seeing where the system has come up with its own solutions, so no role for experts, or for spending loads of money, so where’s the incentives? Yet I increasingly think this could be one of the big wins for the aid industry. Anyone doing it?

Oxfam MEL (monitoring, evaluation and learning) guru Mary Sue Smiaroski raises the interesting point that decent MEL should help push people between quadrants. Eg finding that your confidence is baseless, or after a couple of rounds of iterations, deciding you have found a good bet, promoting it to top right and scaling up.

Matthew Spencer, Oxfam’s new Director of Policy and Campaigns, was interesting in locating different campaign styles in different quadrants. He sees Oxfam’s campaign as bottom right – lots of trying things out and testing, complexity-signbefore moving up to top right and rolling out the big guns. Avaaz and are top left – single interventions with fast feedback. He sees bottom left as inhabited by lots of small organizations campaigning away on different issues and occasionally throwing up big wins, as in the UK’s Modern Slavery movement.

The 2×2 is limited in scope – it describes the potential role of outsiders, not what local change looks like, but what I like about it is that it provides a way to discuss the merits of lots of different approaches, traditional, emerging and deeply unconventional, rather than proposing a single magic bullet.