The Problem with Theory of Change

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If you are working in the fields of development or governance it’s highly likely that you’ve come across the term “theory of change” (ToC). At a conference a couple of weeks ago, while answering some questions, I mentioned that I preferred not to use the term. The comment didn’t go unnoticed by some witty observers on Twitter, and I was surprised by the number of people who came to me afterwards asking why I do not “like” theory of change.

I can see why some people are attracted to the term. First, “change” is a powerful word: it even helps win elections. And when it comes to governance issues, the need for change is almost a consensus. Second, the user of the word “theory” gives scientific verve to the conversation. However, the problem is precisely the appropriateness of its use if one thinks of the word in scientific terms. It seems that people are saying “theory” when they actually mean (at best) “hypothesis”.

We don’t have to go very far to find out what scientific theory actually is. Keeping to information that is just a click away, let’s take one of the definitions reproduced in Wikipedia’s entry for “theory”:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not “guesses” but reliable accounts of the real world.

 Or “scientific theory”:

A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

 And here’s a rap video on the difference between theory and hypothesis:

Granted, the word “theory” is often used as a synonym of “hypothesis”, and even dictionaries do so. But the problem of this in the context of current usages of “theory of change” is that it masks the difference between what we know and do not know about something, often conveying a false sense of scientific rigor. And, particularly when it comes to issues such as development and governance, it is extremely important to have a clear distinction between well-substantiated explanations and every other color of hypotheses, assumptions, and guesses. In fact, in any field, it is a minimal requirement for the production of knowledge.

So here’s an interesting exercise. Search on the web for the use of “theory of change” combined with terms like “accountability” and “open government.” Find, for yourself, which ones are really “theories of change” or, rather, merely “hunches of change.”

Most likely, people will keep using theory of change indiscriminately until the next flavor of the moment comes up. In the meantime, beware.

***

Also read: Open Government, Feedback Loops and Semantic Extravaganza

7 thoughts on “The Problem with Theory of Change

  1. Interesting … but this post totally ignores the fact that Theory of Change is all about the hypotheses we make. Ok, the term “theory” might be misleading, but the ToC approach is all about recognizing the uncertainty of our plans and actions. It is about having an idea (based on a series of hypotheses) or theory about how change might happen. Implementing that idea (through a project/programme) allows us to test those hypotheses (through monitoring and evaluation) and hopefully learn something….

    • Thanks a lot for your comment Koen. I do not have a problem with testing hypotheses. Quite the opposite: that’s what they are made for. The only problem is that the term ToC is misleading and, if one wants to have a minimally rigorous approach to an intervention, a good start is being able to differentiate between hypothesis and theory. The implication of the distinction is not just semantic, but practical. Maybe we should just rename it “hypothesis of change”? After all, if testing hypotheses is a good thing (as we both agree), why should we insist on the erroneous use of “theory”? Thanks again for your comment!

  2. Tiago,

    Thanks for this useful post and I agree that ToCs can often be riddled with assumptions and poorly clarified causal linkages. That said, it does appear to me that the increasing focus on ToCs can provide a starting point for more conversations about those hypotheses, assumptions, and causal linkages that do underlie an intervention or organizational strategy. If used carefully, ToCs might provide an analytical framework for enabling adaptive action by revisiting initial change hypotheses in light of evidence and learning. Not happening in many cases, perhaps, but the potential is there and I can think of a couple examples of organizations moving in this direction.

    Also, as you may well be aware, Oxfam’s Duncan Green has written a bit on ToCs in his blog, which I have found helpful:

    http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/what-is-a-theory-of-change-and-does-it-actually-help/

    http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/what-use-is-a-theory-of-change-6-benefits-and-some-things-to-avoid/

    Also, I appreciate Fletcher Tembo’s (ODI) thoughts on more rigorous and context-sensitive ToCs:

    http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/7602.pdf

    My interest is in how we can utilize the practice of ToCs to move towards more politically-informed and adaptive interventions. I’ve seen creative ways that donors, researchers and peer organizations have helped provide constructive criticism and guidance to improve organizations’ ToCs. More needs to be done, however.

  3. Hi Brendan,

    Thank you for your comments. Just to reiterate, at no point did I mention that the problem of Theory of Change is related to testing hypotheses: this is extremely important. But in my opinion there is a big problem when we do not make a serious effort to distinguish between hypothesis and theory. And the use of the term “theory” to describe exercises that are mostly hypothesis-related promotes that effect. This is illustrated by your first paragraph. While I tend to agree with your points, when referring to ToC, one does not see any theory and hypotheses are all over it.

    I am sure that, in a similar vein, there is lots of good thinking out there that, for some reason, tends go under the misleading label of “theory of change”. But these efforts would be even more effective if 1) we changed the deceiving name and 2) when describing possible “changes”, we highlighted which elements are purely speculative (or based on anecdotal evidence), and which ones are theoretically grounded.

    These new “hypotheses of change”, or whatever new name they would have (maybe “model of change”?), would be, in my opinion, a significant step forward.

    Thanks again!

    • Agreed, and thanks again for highlighting this challenge. It will be interesting to see if there are any organizations moving towards a ‘hypotheses’ or ‘models’ of change approach, and putting serious thought into the evidence base supporting the causal linkages embedded in their interventions. Through the TALEARN community of practice we are thinking of spaces and opportunities to encourage constructive discussion about this topic. Hopefully we can generate some new insights and improved practices, as well as provide guidance and resources to organizations looking to rethink their theory/hypothesis of change model.

  4. Well in a narrow sense Thiago is correct of course. But the term “theory” is also far from as simple a construct as he renders it. For instance, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was mostly a codification of a series of data-independent thought experiments that challenged classical formulations of space and time, especially the concept of “absolute time” and the notion that accelerations have an absolute existence – independent of an inertial frame. Einstein rejected the idea of “absolute time” and frame-independent acceleration. But there was little empirical basis for this at the time; physicists lacked the tools. However, Einstein’s formulation of relativity provided a magnificent context for focusing on key matters in physics and cosmology, and hence for framing and eventually testing hypotheses. Mostly, when they could be tested as tools were developed (e.g., the bending of light around the mass of the sun), they were proven to be correct…and hence his theory is widely accepted as empirically valid. I think in our domain the concept of “theory of change” has a similar context-framing utility in focusing creative thought and systematic inquiries into the challenges that emerge in the delivery of social services and other intentional interventions in the state ff things. One of the most important consequences of such inquiries has been the realization that program logic models are wholly inadequate to the task of clarifying what it takes to produce outcomes as intended, and to do so reliably and sustainably. (For me, program logic models are metaphorically akin to classical physics, which was concerned with context-independent “laws of nature.”) A “theory of change” in our domain must clarify the organizational context (competencies, capacities, environmental opportunities and challenges) of program delivery: programs don’t deliver themselves…they are delivered by organizations that have a whole set of characteristics which influence how well or badly programs are managed and hence how likely it is that intended benefits will be realized. Indeed there is a lot of thought and research going into program implementation challenges and methods, that is, exploring what it takes to translate an efficacious program working in a highly controlled environment into an effective program that works in a variety of settings. Hence to my way of thinking, in our domain “theory of change” is a construct that clarifies the need to contextualize our understanding of what it takes to change the status quo, and to reject programmatic reductionism. It has utility – and is only meaningful – at the level of the organization and its contexts, not at the more concrete level of a given program (which is a necessary but not sufficient part of the whole). If social policy framers understood this, a great deal of money, time, and effort could be saved because one important reason so many programs “don’t work” is that they are delivered by organizations that don’t have the competencies and capacities to deliver them well or reliably. Funders generally are loathe to invest in “local capacity building” – yet a “theory of change” perspective insists that such investments are absolutely essential.

  5. Hello David,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. While physics is beyond my capacities, it seems to me quite a stretch to compare Einstein’s Relativity Theory with other sorts of “theories” of change. Having said that, one of the definitions of theory that I reproduce above – “A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements (…)” – comes from Stephen Hawking, who is surely well-versed in the discipline. Also, as far as I know, Einstein classified his relativity theory as a “principle-theory”. In Einstein’s own words, the foundations of principle theories “are not hypothetical constituents, but empirically observed general properties of phenomena, principles from which mathematical formula are deduced of such a kind that they apply to every case which presents itself”, whereas their merit is “their logical perfection, and the security of their foundation.” I do not see much of that in theories of change. But given my total ignorance on the subject I anticipate that I might be wrong.

    Having said this, my point was much simpler than the conversation that stems from it, that is, “when it comes to issues such as development and governance, it is extremely important to have a clear distinction between well-substantiated explanations and every other color of hypotheses, assumptions, and guesses.” I am not convinced current “theories” of change are making that distinction.

    Thanks again for your comments,

    Tiago

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