I have been blogging quite extensively about the Theory of Change (ToC) approach in recent months. My blog posts reflect a process that I have been going through as part of my different work engagements: adapt ToC approaches to be more sensitive to the complexities development programmes face in their day-to-day work.
Different phases of Systemic Insight
In parallel, with my colleagues at Mesopartner we keep doing research on understanding complex realities and our human reaction to them based on cognitive science, understanding the process of economic change, making decisions under conditions of uncertainty, and managing highly resilient organisations. In these contexts, ToC has limited applicability and a number of drawbacks. Therefore, we have been working on an alternative approach to the ToC approach which we built from the ground up based on our growing understanding of how complex systems work and how involved actors can lead a process of exploration and change. The approach is called Systemic Insight. Continue reading
When I wrote my last post about experimenting with new structures for a complexity aware Theory of Change (ToC) in Myanmar, I had a few elements in place, but still some questions. Going further back to an earlier post, I was clear that differentiating between clear causal links for complicated issues and unpredictable causalities for complex ones is critical. I have been thinking about that a lot and last week I have taught a session on monitoring in complex contexts and I think I have found the final piece of the puzzle. Continue reading
Last week I was in Myanmar working with a market
systems development programme. The main task of this trip is to work on the project’s monitoring framework. To set the stage for that, we are working on revising the project’s theory of change (ToC).
A messy theory of change
Theory of Change is a bit of a contentious beast in my set of tools. As I am thinking and writing a lot on complexity and complex systems, I am aware that causality in complex systems can hardly ever be reduced to a straight line between two boxes and it is even more difficult to predict in advance how change will look like. It is not just that causalities are difficult to disentangle or predict in advance (it’s easier using hindsight), but that because of emergence there are other causalities at work than the linear material – billard-ball like – causality we are used to. But this is the topic of another blog post. So for me, Theory of Change is not an instrument to predict what change will happen but to create a coherent picture that explains why the project is doing what it is doing. Continue reading
Getting too eager about building the perfect Theory of Change (ToC) for your organisation, programme or project can lead to an over-designed ToC that can be more of a hindrance than a help to manage and learn. It sucks up a lot of time and team resources to build but then gets out-dated extremely quickly. A ToC should be an idea that is alive and dynamic. For me a ToC is more useful if it is a sketch on the back of an envelope after an intense discussion rather than a page in a high-gloss brochure. A ToC in a complex setting is necessarily imperfect. But it can still be extremely useful. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
I got a very good feedback on my blog post last week on complexity informed Theories of Change, it was shared widely on Twitter. But I also got some questions. One person pointed out the fact that the method I described in that post was mainly focusing on new programmes that are developing their first Theory of Change. But what about programmes that are in the middle of implementation? Programmes where the programme team sense that things are not going the way they are supposed to according to their Theory of Change, Logframe or project plan. Should the managers of such programmes just stop operations and go back to the drawing board to develop a complexity aware Theory of Change? This is in most cases not possible, unless things are really going badly. How can these programmes incorporate some of the ideas of complexity informed Theories of Change?
We know that current development challenges are complex. But not all elements of a development programme are necessarily complex. How does a theory of change look like that shows us which aspects of a programme are complex and which aren’t? How does this help managers to develop appropriate strategies for interventions and focus their attention?
I have been thinking quite a bit about monitoring and how to find a monitoring framework that works in programmes that are facing the complexities of the real world (and I blogged about it before here and here). More and more monitoring guides speak about the complexities programme managers and staff face ‘out there’ and some guides even venture as far as to say that change in the real world is not linear or predictable. The new BEAM Monitoring guidance, which I co-authored, for example, states that ‘a market systems programme is unlikely to achieve its goals in a simple, linear way. It may be difficult to fully understand (at least in advance) how causes and effects will work at a system-wide level. There may therefore be significant uncertainties about how the overall market system may be re-oriented to serve poor people better.’ Continue reading