ToC – all harmony?

Continuing my little emerging series on Theories of Change, there is another issue that I feel is very important in connection with complexity-informed Theories of Change: they do not need to be based on total agreement among the stakeholders. On the contrary, it is important to understand where there is agreement on causalities among the stakeholders and where there is not as this gives us important insight on the complexity of specific links in the logical chain.

When we look at the Theory of Change literature, participation comes up as an important if not central element of a Theory of Change process. And it undeniably is. Bringing in a wide range of stakeholders ensures that we get all or many of the diverse perspectives reflected in the Theory of Change process – and as I have written earlier, understanding diverse perspectives is a corner stone of systemic thinking.

So imagine we have all these diverse stakeholders in a room (or maybe involved during different phases of the Theory of Change development process). What we inevitably get is dissent on quite a number of assumptions within the logic we are trying to put together for the project. Traditionally it was the aim of the facilitator in such participatory processes to generate consensus among the stakeholders so in the end we could all agree in harmony on one version of a Theory of Change that will be implemented by the project. I think that is a mistake. What we rather should do is pay a lot of attention to where the stakeholders agree and where they disagree. This goes back to the idea that there are different types of causal links in a Theory of Change. The ones all stakeholders think are obvious and the ones the stakeholders tend to agree on if some deeper analysis is done are causalities from the ‘ordered’ type. They are stable and repeatable and can be included in a Theory of Change as uncontested (which does not mean that we don’t have to pay attention to whether they actually work out in the way we imagined they would). But then there are the (probably many) causal relations on which there is no agreement. For these we won’t get agreement even with more research and presentation of evidence, either because the evidence is not conclusive or contradicting in itself or because there are different political agendas involved. These are the complex causal links we need to pay special attention to.

Instead of using our power as development agents to force stakeholders into some kind of consensus around a Theory of Change of our programme – for the sake of having a clear and neat logic model – we should harvest the dissent to give us ideas of different options we can explore. There is no one right answer to a complex problem. We need to explore in a safe to fail manner. As described in my earlier post on complexity informed Theories of Change, we need to build in ‘exploration boxes’ into the model to reflect this. In order to achieve the effect, instead of devising a single intervention, we can put together a portfolio of experiments. Each of the dissenting perspective can thereby be the basis for an such experiment.

Where the different perspectives are in open conflict, this method can even be used for conflict mitigation. Instead of trying to find consent and harmony during the discussions around ‘the right’ Theory of Change, we can simply say: ‘ok, let’s try all of it and see what actually works’ (obviously from an operational perspective this might not always be that simple).

If we work on complex social, economic and political problems, there will inevitably be contradicting perspectives and dissent involved. We should use these to make our exploration of possible ways to change the situation more diverse and increase the chances of success.

2 thoughts on “ToC – all harmony?

  1. hlanthorn

    Hi Marcus: this is nicely considered and useful. I wonder if you could comment on (or blog on) the pre-gathering process. Both experiences and advice-received suggest that there is benefit to meeting with some of the stakeholders in advance and individually to get their views on the ToC, that you (facilitator) can better anticipate where there will/not be consensus and plan the group-participatory session accordingly. Your thoughts and insights would be appreciated.

    Also, I have found that such ToC sessions can be really tough when people realize they haven’t thought through the possibilities and needed (possibly) steps between goals and planned activities — and I feel that I almost end up taking on a therapist role as we negotiate an existential crisis (and find myself wondering if I should get training in conflict negotiation). I am not sure of that ‘crisis’ moment is made more or less difficult by opening a session letting people know that consensus on all points is not the goal. Would be interested, again, in your thoughts.

  2. hlanthorn

    (perhaps it helps if i clarify that i often come into projects with the role of evaluation, and in this context ask to learn about their program’s theory of change (as opposed to being brought in specifically to think through the theor(ies) of change)

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