Tips for developing a theory of change that you and your team will love

Theory of change can be an invaluable asset in driving positive change but developing an effective one can be challenging, particularly in complex program contexts. In this article, we share some valuable tips and tricks to enhance the value of theory of change, regardless of the level of complexity you face.

1. Embrace complexity

Rather than attempting to simplify everything to fit into a neat diagram, acknowledge the intricacies and interconnectedness of various elements. We have learned that sometimes it’s not possible to get it all into the one diagram. Instead, consider having a more complex “work horse model” for your evaluation team, a simpler stylised version for external communications, and maybe even a narrative version to get punchy in your communications.

2. Incorporate Diverse Perspectives

To create a well-rounded theory of change, it is crucial to involve various stakeholders, including beneficiaries, community members, program managers, and staff. Engaging in a participatory approach allows for the incorporation of multiple perspectives, providing a deeper understanding of the problem and potential solutions. By privileging and respecting the viewpoints of those who stand to benefit from the program, the theory of change becomes more robust and will likely lead to better outcomes.

3. Use Stories

One innovative approach to enrich the development of a theory of change is using stories. By starting with some discovery work, such as using the most significant change technique , we can draw out stories about how outcomes are catalysed in practice. We can also gain valuable insights into how people perceive change and what changes they envision. Stories serve as powerful tools to gather information and establish causal pathways, making the process more relatable and meaningful for stakeholders. This method allows for a deeper understanding of the complexities of change, especially when working with grassroots communities.

4. Continuous Learning and Adaptation

A theory of change is not a one-time endeavour but a dynamic process that demands continuous learning and adaptation. As new information emerges, be open to refining and updating the theory of change to ensure its relevance and effectiveness. A theory of change should be viewed as an evolving document that reflects program learning and responds to changing contexts.

5. Use Archetypes for Exploration

It can be useful to introduce archetypal Theories of Action to stimulate thinking and help you break free from “the way things have always been done”. Some common archetypes include the COM-B model of behaviour change, the empowerment model, and the partnership model. Sharing a few archetypes should encourage participants to consider multiple options.

6. Prioritise Evidence-Based Approach

Make sure you draw on evidence from various sources. This includes scholarly literature, behaviour change theories, data from the field, and the perspectives of program participants. Evidence will help validate assumptions, uncover new insights, and improve the theory of change.

Developing a theory of change is a journey of purposeful planning. By investing time and effort into creating a comprehensive and accessible theory of change, you can chart a clear path towards success and make a lasting impact. With this powerful thinking tool at hand, change becomes not just a possibility but an achievable reality even in complex settings.