What does a theory of change look like?

June 21, 2011 22 By admin

I’ve been working on ‘how change happens’ for a few years now, as regulars to this blog will know, but in the last few months, ‘theories of change’ has gone viral as a new development fuzzword. In meetings and documents, people earnestly enquire ‘what’s your theory of change?’ and you’re in trouble if you don’t have an answer. (Quite a good answer is ‘could you just explain what you mean by theory of change?’ – people often have no idea).

So it’s time to ride the wave and speed up the ‘theories of change’ work programme, and last week I spent some time at IDS and with Oxfam big cheeses thinking through what a joint IDS-Oxfam work programme might look like. Here’s what I’m currently thinking, with a plea to others to comment, send sources and otherwise give me a hand. Hat tips to Thalia Kidder and Jo Rowlands for their suggestions.

Firstly it’s ‘theories’ not ‘theory’. When people talk about a single ‘theory of change’ (ToC from now on), alarm bells should ring – in the worst case it’s just a new jargon for old-school linear change, impact chains, logframes etc. Instead of a deluded search for a single grand theory of everything, we need to learn to recognize and manage a range of theories, throw them at a problem, and see which ones are helpful (see my recent experience of doing this in Tanzania). Yes folks, we’re talking practical post modernism….. Surfacing our deeper, buried assumptions about the motors of change can also help us understand why we keep disagreeing with each other, a crucial skill in coalition-building.

Being able to acknowledge your own ‘preferred ToC’ and yet have the ability to stand outside it and understand those of others is really hard to do – an emotional and intellectual stretch – but it’s an invaluable skill. I think a lot of the practical impact of any ToC workplan is going to lie in helping build such capacities.

To do that, you need some rules of thumb – NGO types are mainly doers and activists, impatient to get on and change the world. They need practical tools to help them apply ToCs in their work. So I’ve been building on some work on ‘archetypes of change’ by Chris Roche and ‘meta-theories’ from Ros Eyben, to come up with this rough typology.

There are three categories, with some overlap between the categories, but broadly they are:

1. ‘Systemic meta-theories’ (apologies – please suggest a less pretentious alternative!), describing the underlying way you see the world and its motors of change. They may lead to particular change strategies, or simply underpin the overall analysis.

2. Archetypes – more specific snapshots of how change happens in a given place and moment. I’ve provisionally grouped them into four complexity signclusters: active citizenship, elite-driven change, cross-class coalitions and what I’ve called ‘dynamics’ where the focus is on the rhythm of the change itself, rather than specific drivers. Not sure if the dynamics actually belong in a separate column.

3. Change strategies, adopted by would-be ‘change agents’ to bring about good change/ prevent bad change

Category 1 is free standing; while categories 2 & 3 go together, i.e. the change strategies follow from the archetype of change in the same row. None of these lists are exhaustive, and some overlap with each other – I hope to reduce the level of messiness as the work proceeds, but here it is, warts and all.

Systemic meta-theories

• Rational Choice: change is unintended outcome of individual choice
• Environment/techno determinism
• Long term shifts in deep underlying  norms, values and beliefs
• Purposive individual/ collective action
• Marxist/Structuralist: changes in relations of production and economic power structures key
• Evolution (variation/selection/ amplification)
• Shocks and wars drive change by transforming social, political and economic relations

And here are the more specific archetypes and their associated change strategy:

1. Archetype: How Change Happens 2. Change Strategy: What we do
Active Citizenship: four powers Integrated change strategy using multiple strategies
AC: People in the streets Popular mobilization, supporting grassroots organization
AC: Grassroots leadership Leadership training
Elites: enlightened leaders Advocacy and elite networking
Elites: Technocrats make evidence-based policy Research-based advocacy
Cross-Class: Democracy works   Election campaigns, party influencing, voter registration drives
Cross-Class: Coalitions of dissimilar players (e.g. civil society, private sector, sympathetic state officials) drive ‘transitions to accountability’ Alliances and coalitions; convening role; use of power analysis to design insider-outsider advocacy and programme strategies
Dynamics: steady incremental progress Logframe/linear planningFocus on binding constraints
Dynamics: tipping points and  breakthroughs Reactive: rapid shift of resources to respond to shocks (financial crisis, Arab Spring etc)
Dynamics: contagion, through the power of example Piloting/supporting new approaches, publicising success
Dynamics: non linear and evolutionary  ‘Accelerating evolution’: supporting experiments, helping with variation and selection; advocacy for amplification

Clear as mud? I’d welcome all thoughts, especially on clarifying and improving the typology. Next steps are to start identifying case studies, plan some desk reviews, design some training modules and raise some research funding (do get in touch if you want to fund it!) I’ll keep you posted as plans develop.