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Theory of Change/Theory of Action process

Brief Description

A Theory of Change (ToC) represents an understanding of how a social, political, economic and/or cultural change happens. A Theory of Action (ToA) explains how a particular program or initiative contributes to the change process, and is informed by the broader Theory of Change. A Theory of Change/Theory of Action can be represented either visually or with narrative, often with both. While the final product is useful as a communication tool and as to concisely explain complex ideas, the value for Knowledge Sharing is the participatory process of creating this collective understanding. The outcomes map resulting from the conversation also provides a framework for monitoring and evaluation. In brief, a ToC/ToA process:

  • is a collective visualization exercise for allowing a group to focus on desirable future outcomes.
  • a process tool for that supports monitoring collective and individual ways of thinking about the world and how change happens.
  • documents and allows for critical discussion and review of assumptions underlying programs and strategies.
  • a thinking and action approach allowing group identification of conditions and earlier outcomes that need to occur on the path to the desired change.
  • is a participatory, multi-stakeholder learning process which provides scaffolding for group learning and reflection.
  • a map of the logical pathways that link actions to results.

For this page Theory of Action is used, as the process is often found to be more accessible for groups with limited time, resources. In reality, these methods are very flexible and adaptable.

===== History ===== Theory of Change/Action draws from evaluation methods and practices and informed social action. From the evaluation field it is related to theory-driven evaluation which has an explicit focus on theoretical underpinnings of interventions and the logical linkages between action and desired outcomes. From the development field ToC/ToA draws from the focus on knowledge for action and social change and participatory approaches emphasizing reflection and critical thinking. Recently, publications and work by two U.S. based organizations, the Aspen Institute and ActKnowledge, and played important roles in the development of a broader interest in Theory of Change approaches and thinking. (See resources below).

===== When to use ===== This process is best used at the beginning of a program or initiative, as a tool for surfacing assumptions, critical thinking and reflection, and sharpening of planning and strategy. It also provides a framework for monitoring and evaluation, focusing efforts on the outcomes that need to be tracked and documented. It can also be used later on in the project life cycle, as participants can draw from assessments and reflections about ongoing work, and make mid-stream adjustments as needed.

===== How to use ===== There are many good resources – (see links below)
Key ingredients:
*A strong external facilitator
*Stakeholders at various levels of the organization, group, including leadership and people who normally don't speak up, and/or participate in planning meetings, etc.
*Adequate time – 2 four hour blocks on different days would be a good start. The process can evolve over a period of months, as time allows.
*Tools/space for placement of post-its, drawing, etc.
The basic steps are:
Formulation of the long-term 'vision' of success that an organization or group wants to contribute to. How will the world/community, etc. be different in X years because of the work of X organization, program?
Development of outcome “pathways”, or the shorter-term, smaller outcomes that need to be achieved to reach the vision. These change pathways form an interlinked results chain, or web of cause effect relationships, reflecting the 'story' of how the group believes the change will be achieved. What earlier outcomes need to be achieved to reach outcome X?
Surfacing, testing assumptions. If we achieved outcome X, will this really lead to outcome Y? How do we know this? Are there any leaps in logic here, or anything missing?
Discussion of context and external factors. Intended outcomes in complex social change work are achieved through the contribution of many actors. Which other actors could influence, either negatively or positively our progress? Given this, how might we take into account this actors/factors in your ToA?
Aligning strategies/activities. Even programs in the planning stages have some understanding of strategies, capacities, relationships that are needed or that exist. These need to be introduced into the process, such as by putting at the bottom of the emerging change map. Where are these elements in line with the what has emerged in the change map? Is there anywhere that more effective strategies might be suggested?
Testing the logic. With stakeholders or allies that weren't part of the initial process discuss the vision, assumptions, logical linkages between outcomes and choices of strategies. Make revisions based on discussions.
Use it! have a framework for monitoring and evaluating your work (an outcomes framework) as well as an important tool of planning, learning, strategic planning and adaptation. Periodically, as new information is received about the effectiveness and challenges of program implementation, go back and discuss assumptions, see how strategies are aligned, and consider what changes might need to be made. Change maps can also be used effectively as communication tools.

(Note: the method can be adapted to particular needs of groups involved. There isn't one 'right' way.)

===== Tips and Lessons Learnt ===== *For a ToA to be more than just a map, the facilitator needs to be sure that the organization has the understanding and capacity to take on facilitation itself (for example by providing suggestions, a simple toolkit), so that the process of critical thinking can happen independently of a facilitator. While outside facilitators are important in asking questions, pushing back, it's not always feasible to have one on a regular basis.
*ToC processes can be long and seem overly theoretical, and raise questions about cost-benefit. Consider ways of making the process more accessible, especially for organizations with limited resources. A focus on a Theory of Action rather than Theory of Change can be more manageable, relevant for some groups.
*ToA is best when considered one tool as part of a larger toolkit of methods/approaches to help groups prioritize, reflect and analyze.
*It is often helpful to help groups to a brief pre-survey to get them thinking critically about their work. This can also help the facilitator to provide some framework for the change map, as looking a a blank wall with a pile of post-its and markers in front of you can be a bit daunting!
*Be open to a variety of visual approaches to represent thinking. Not all people are linear thinkers, and complex change work be represented in many ways that reflect relationships and logic.
*It can be helpful do bring findings from past assessments or evaluations to the conversation. While this could easily overwhelm participants, sharing a smaller number of salient points can be helpful. (One idea is to put a few points on white sticky paper around room)
*Consider any visual representation as a work in progress. The goal is to have a rich, structured conversation that helps the group to strengthen their work, not a 'perfect map'.

===== Examples & Stories ===== (Process facilitated by page author, below..)
I recently conducted a Theory of Action process with a capacity building organization, the Progressive Technology Project (PTP), that works with political organizing and social movement groups in the U.S. The group wanted to develop their Theory of Action, but also have a very focused discussion linking their ToA process to decision-making over the next couple years. One of their priorities was ensuring that there was a structured process for deep thinking about impact and alignment of strategies and activities organizationally. The described process shows how ToA can be adjusted and combined with other tools, approaches to meet specific needs.

(The participants knew each other well, brought in-depth knowledge and understanding of the US social movement world and the role of technology as well as familiarity with
a variety of group planning and change processes. Given this, we felt comfortable moving through the process relatively quickly).

Our two day process:
(Day 1)
1) Intro to ToA: (Why it matters, how it can be used, etc.)
2) Warm up: We spent the first part of the first morning talking generally about the question: What are the concrete capacity changes the organization hoped to see in the groups that they were supporting, and why? (These were put on post-its on the wall)
3) VIsion: Then, we focused specifically on the following question: What did PTP hope the groups supported would be better able to do (in terms of social and political change), because of this increased capacity? (These were put up on post-its, roughly aligned with the above) Note: We chose to discuss the “biggest” vision question 2nd, as often it's easier to engage with this after participants have warmed-up a bit, and the earlier conversation serves to ground the vision)

4) Outcome pathways/assumptions:
* Then, instead of just having an open conversation, participants divided into 3-4 small groups and were asked build on #2 (above) to establish the 3-4 priority changes in capacity they hoped to see in the organizations, and why these were important. We then had an open discussion about where there were agreements or disagreements and came up with an agreed upon list of outcomes. (These were put on post-its on the wall) * Next, we broke up again in small groups, roughly organized by longer-term outcome areas that smaller groups wanted to focus on. Each group discussed the earlier small_group.jpgoutcomes and conditions that needed to be reached (or exist) in order for the longer term outcomes to be achieved (and why). Each group wrote their outcomes on post-its and we clustered them around the longer-term outcome area. Then, using “dot democracy” people went to the wall and “voted” on the outcomes they felt were most important in reaching the longer-term outcome, and then discussed their choices with the larger group. (Note: Around the room were also placed on white paper a number of key findings from previous assessments to allow participants to draw from other perspectives)

| dot_demo.jpg | | 'Dot Democracy' |
5) Aligning strategies/activities - We looked at the evolving ToA, and the outcomes that people had prioritized as important for reaching the vision. We discussed the following three question: 1) Where do you feel the organization is focused on achieving, and having traction? 2) Which outcomes are important that the organization isn't doing much about? 3) Where do you see room for adjustments in strategy/activities? This conversation served to wrap up the day. (Main points of this conversation were charted, and put around the room to inform the conversation the second day)

(Day 2)

priorities2.jpg1) Aligning strategies/activities and capacity with vision. This day took the critical thinking and prioritization that happened during the ToA process, considering also current resources, capacity and commitments. The goal was to come out of the day with a set of “strategic guide posts” for the following 12-18 months which would then be discussed more in detail at an upcoming board meeting.

* To start their was an overview discussion of current obligations (workshops planned, funder commitments, etc.) and realities (resource issues, etc.) * Next, each participant discussed what was on his/her plate for the upcoming year. * We did a review of the prior days work, and particularly the priority outcomes, and the points on white paper around the room, that had been raised in previous days discussion of aligning strategies/activities. * Then, we noted on white paper all the current and potential activities that were happened, planned, or that someone had considered. * In small groups, participants then discussed what they felt like the most important priorities needed to be, given the ToA discussion of the prior day. * Participants came together, and discussed these, and a final round of 'dot democracy' (putting colored dots on choices) was done in order to come up with a list of 'guideposts' for moving forward.
| ptp_theory_of_action_draft_112712.jpg | | PTP's Theory of Action |

===== Who can tell me more? ===== * See resources ===== Related Methods / Tools / Practices =====
===== Resources (add your resources) ===== * * * * * *
===== Keywords, Tags ===== Theory of Action, planning, participation, advocacy, social change, evaluation, strategy, reflection.
===== Photo or image credits ===== Photos - Catherine Borgman-Arboleda

===== Page Authors ===== Catherine Borgman-Arboleda -
Action Evaluation Collaborative -

theory_of_change_theory_of_action.txt · Last modified: 2018/07/08 15:21 (external edit)