Theories of change vs dart throwing chimps

I wouldn’t ideally call it a ‘theory of change’, but I think it can be really helpful to develop – at an organisational level – a shared view of how change happens, the power dynamics at play, and the best ways to intervene.

The absence of this sort of analysis can be problematic for many reasons, to do with what flows into this gap in understanding.

However, it’s at the campaign level, not the organisational one, where ‘theories of change’ are all the rage these days.

And, as a planning process and tool, the approach has some obvious advantages:

It uncovers, and allows for interrogation of, assumptions about how change happens.

The process of developing theories of change can expose vague and unfounded assumptions and help ensure that strategy is anchored around the change you are trying to achieve.

The process of planning can give valuable space to reflect on the bigger picture.

This is true as long as it doesn’t just end up privileging particular groups or opinions and excluding others (which it can easily do, for reasons to do with how power plays out).

It can help create a common understanding.

Theories of change can get everyone on the same page, and help in communicating a common direction.

 

On the downside, though, I would say that campaign ‘theories of change’ are pretty much nonsense. In  that they are based on – and then further encourage – a fundamental misinterpretation of how change happens:

 

1/ PREDICTION

Campaign ‘theories of change’ tend start from the expectation that social change is predictable and that the steps can be plausibly laid out.

In a few cases – to do with the stability of the issue or the context – some sort of formalised forward planning may make sense. And in theory, if not generally in practice, there is scope to continually adapt the ‘theory of change’ as the context evolves.

But even so, the ‘theories of change’ approach seems to be based on over-optimism at best.

In a classic 20 year study for example, political psychologist Philip Tetlock asked nearly 300 experts to make political and policy predictions in their specialist fields, and he then looked back on these predictions and reviewed their accuracy.

He found that the forecasts overall were barely better than a ‘chimp strategy’ [of randomly guessing], and in many cases they were worse.

Tetlock judged the reasons for this poor showing were to do with:

  • How change actually happens (and its inherent unpredictability)
  • The psychological properties of people making the predictions (we prefer simplicity, are averse to ambiguity, like to believe in a controllable world, etc.)

These factors combined make it unsurprising that predictions about what will happen and what actually does happen can be so far away from each other.

 

2/ THE SOURCE OF CHANGE

Theories of change – as they are typically applied – help promote a false and solipsistic sense of organisational self-importance.

They are attractive because they fit with our understanding of time, as something that goes forward. We intervene and this has effects that then lead to later outcomes.

This very much encourages a distorted, organisation-centred picture of the nature of change, with everyone else bit part players in it.

But social change is far more likely to be happening in all kinds of directions, driven by all sorts of actors and factors in all sorts of different combinations. Organisations find themselves aiming at moving targets rather than living in a world where everything else revolves around the organisation whose theory of change it is.

 

And so as an alternative I would suggest a more sensible approach to campaign planning, a ‘balance of forces’ approach, based on:

  1. mapping where the power lies in the system
  2. setting out the barriers to achieving the desired change (and the favourable factors)
  3. identifying in what ways the campaign will intervene to change this balance

The campaign plan would then follow this logic, setting out

  • What needs to change and
  • Which changes the campaign is focused on helping to achieve, and how

Not in a grand, long-term blueprint sense, but in a ‘let’s do this and then see where we are’ kind of way.

Ongoing planning would then be about iterative course-correcting. Revisiting the analysis of the barriers to change along the way, tracking any progress, or shifts, and adapting strategy as needed.

This approach

  • Embeds the importance of a robust analysis of power and the dynamics of change
  • Focuses on outcomes and the kinds of interventions an organisation can best make to help achieve them
  • Helps in shaping a common strategy
  • Allows for a more fluid approach, a shift from ‘predict and control’ to ‘assess and react’

And its starting point is a much truer picture of how change actually happens

 

One Comment

  1. chris rose says:

    Totally agree and said so in my last Newsletter (from my website). I’d love to ban the term “theory of change”, partly because most are untestable general nonsense, and partly as it can induce campaigners to assume they have an evidence base as to why something might work, when all it may be is a few references to half–baked academic concepts. The best that can often be said of such talk is that asking the question “what’s your theory of change” stands in for “convince me you have really thought about it”, which I worth asking.

    There are indeed lots of things that can be done to raise the odds that a plan will work but the scope for derminism is usually small scale compared to the big picture claims of most “general theories of change”, which is why they are of little practical use.

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