Dr Jess Dart, Lauren Siegmann and Damien Sweeney share their approaches and personal experiences.
Considered by many change-makers as the ultimate ‘road map’ when it comes to creating social impact, a good Theory of Change is an integral part of any intervention or initiative aiming to affect change. In our recent webinar, we asked Clear Horizon experts from different fields about the approaches they use when creating a theory of change. While there was consensus on many aspects, there were some significant differences (and interesting discussions!) about others, which begged the question – is there a right way to develop a theory of change?
The long and short of it is – no! There’s no magic methodology or ‘one size fits all’ approach for creating a good theory of change. But before we get into some of our panellist’s differing approaches, let’s look at some broad areas of agreement:
Evidence can be useful – but collect and use with care
A solid theory of change should be based on solid evidence, right? Our panellists agree that evidence including scholarly research, data, case studies, community voice and expert input can certainly be useful in guiding your assumptions and approach. But, for it to be meaningful, you need to consider how and what evidence to use depending on the type and stage of your intervention.
If your intervention is just being created, it’s important to use what existing evidence is available, or even your best hunches to help develop the initial ‘cut’ of the theory of change and for it then to be developed iteratively as learning comes to light through discovery work with users and prototyping solutions. However, if an intervention is past the design stage, key assumptions that underpin the theory of change should be drawn out and tested to see if they hold true. In terms of assessing likeliness of holding true, scholarly evidence, previous evaluations and observations can help.
- In terms of finding the ‘right’ evidence to help you determine what could work, our panellists recommend you look at:
- Population-level data – for helping diagnose the social problem you’re aiming to overcome
- Research data – for more about the nature of the problem
- ‘Grey literature’ – for getting a sense what other programs have been doing
- Talking to people and gathering their perspectives – this too can be a valuable form of evidence!
So now we’re clear on our commonalities, let’s explore some of the differences in our panellists’ approaches.
How do you bring about consensus?
Dr Jess Dart
“I have a lot of different strategies up my sleeve! Getting consensus on the ‘big stuff’ is the hardest – about how different people understand how change occurs. One method I apply is getting individuals to map out their own theory of change, share their differences, then apply ‘dotmotcracy’ – an activity where participants get a sticky dot which they can use to vote for part of a model, or a whole model. This technique helps demonstrate what model or combination of models best works for a group.
“I believe that an evaluator’s role in developing a theory of change is to be an intermediary of multiple perspectives. Navigating multiple perspectives and then to ensuring that the final product reflects all of these requires a high level of emotional intelligence. It’s important to be aware of power relations, and how this can impact whose opinion is represented in the group’s theory of change. Because of this, I try to privilege the beneficiary in the development of a theory of change, especially when negotiating differences in opinions. They are the ones for whom the theory should be designed, so it’s their perspective that matters most.”
“Getting clarity on terms and definitions upfront is the most important thing to bring about consensus in developing a theory of change. It’s important to get clarity on what people mean by theory of change from the get-go. And then, to get clarity on the issue or problem, which extends to understanding and agreeing on feasible outcome(s) for the timeframe and budget available. I believe the role of the MEL person in this context of ‘critical friend’ – to ask questions and try to poke holes, question assumptions and clarify understanding to ensure that the theory of change developed is as robust as it can be.”