Useful Theories of Change
Guidance and resources on accessible, useful, and usable Theories of Change.
What are they?
Useful Theories of Change are as their name suggests. Useful. Traditional Theory of Change (ToC) models frequently miss the mark. They feel uncomfortable. They lead to confusion over what ‘outputs’ are vis-a-vis ‘outcomes’. Programme teams usually don’t like them. Ultimately, they do not describe change. We need to stop applying simple models to complex situations, but you can read in this blog post more about how I feel about the older models. This segment is about a better model.
Useful ToCs (UToCs), as pioneered by John Mayne in 2015, actually describe change.  They do away with confusing, untranslatable, and out-of-date language around ‘outputs’ and ‘outcomes’ and use plain language to describe the pathway that takes you from point A to point B. Ultimately, when trying to change things, you do some stuff, which produces some kind of good and/or service, which reaches the right people who react in change-conducive ways, who then gain some kind of capabilities, opportunities and motivations (click here for more on this) which then leads to behaviour change. That behaviour change (either individual, group, organisational, or systemic) will allow a direct benefit to occur, which contributes to a sustainable positive change.
For example: you develop a training programme, which produces workshops and training materials, which reaches the high-flying journalists that write about governance abuses (in country x). These journalists attend the training and listen, rather than falling asleep, and gain skills in quality journalism and confidence to trust their instincts and try different approaches. These capabilities and motivations mean that instead of writing pieces that get lost or ignored, they write effective journalism that attracts attention. This behaviour means that the government is publicly shamed for bad behaviour, which contributes to the government reducing its civil liberty violations.
That’s far more change-friendly and intuitive than: deliver training programme -> policy implemented better -> Government of Uzbekistan’s transformational plan rolled out.
The crucial parts of these ToCs is that they really highlight behaviour change, which is a crucial hinge point of your programme. Behaviour change is where you lose control and hope that change occurs from your actions; much like stacking up dominoes on a flat surface, with no wind, then flicking them and hoping that you set up the environment correctly such that they fall. It’s where implementation hands over to programme theory, and you hope that you understood the context and got your assumptions right such that others start to do things differently. But you can read more about that here.
Importantly, you can also use UToCs! They’re powerful aids to understanding where you may have a blockage in your programme as illustrated in this blog post, as well as fuelling a robust, evidence-informed risk matrix and programme management structures. They’re also far easier to measure, and so form the foundations for powerful results frameworks.
 Mayne, J., Useful Theories of Change, Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, 2015
How do I do it?
UToCs are intuitive and therefore really easy to build out: everyone knows what a good or service might be, whereas few are usually clear on what the outputs of a programme may be. I have yet to have trainees, team members, or fledlings who have found a UToC difficult to build. You can design these as you would a traditional ToC, but below is a list of some resources, blog musings and guidance.
If feeling academically inclined, you can try out the John Mayne 2015 paper that I signposted above.