Right now, it feels like anything can derail everything, so are theories of change still useful?

Guest post from Oxfam’s Thomas Dunmore-Rodriguez

Applying a theory of change approach is hard, and in the current context just got a whole lot harder. Theories of change tend to be abstract, intangible, and largely hypothetical, so given the unpredictability of the COVID-affected world, are they still useful for activists seeking to strategize for positive social change? Recently a group of us, weathered theory of change practitioners and facilitators that we are, put our heads together to share challenges and begin to try to answer this question.

It seems the best theories of change emerge from face-to-face workshop settings, where the ins and outs of socio-political context can be thrashed out. The end result can often remain a fairly sketchy story of change, with lots of untested assumptions, but the beauty is often in the process itself. I remember a complex theory of change mapped across the concentric circles of a socio-ecological model that emerged from a workshop in Brazil (see below). Whilst the diagram itself was largely indecipherable to anyone else, for those of us in the workshop it represented three days of intense conversations around the deep structures underlying discrimination against young black people living in the favelas.

This is common. A theory of change process is generally more useful for the team involved directly, and perhaps less so for others who only get to read the end result. It can force a more inquisitive state of mind, addressing often neglected aspects of context analysis, such as power, hidden influence, social norms and narratives. It helps bring our understanding of how change is really happening into focus, and catalyses adventurous conversations about our role in the world as organisations, and as activists.


For the process to be of good quality, building a theory of change takes time. It is an iterative process of interrogation and building of a common understanding across a group of people. Yet in the online world we now find ourselves in, time waits for no one. Digital overload means that not everyone that needs to be, is actually “in the room”. Engagement ebbs and flows, and there’s less space to express doubts, pose questions and challenge assumptions. In a virtual set-up, there’s an emphasis on productivity, on reaching results more quickly, yet online theory of change workshops seem somehow less suitable for decision-making. The rules of the game, the way conclusions are reached is less clear, less visible.

People feel frustrated that there is not enough space for proper discussion and to reach consensus, definitely an issue here in Latin America where deliberations often spill over from the workshop into dinner and evening chats. Not online they don’t. Follow up from theory of change sessions is also less clear. It seems there is a greater risk of the results of an online workshop immediately gathering dust, rather than being revisited and becoming a live reference for a group of changemakers. With such huge uncertainties in the contexts we are working in at present, attempts to develop a theory of change are likely to need updating almost immediately, yet this doesn’t seem to be common practice. We need methodologies that are effective but also self-explanatory, perhaps less abstract and technical. If participants cannot go back to them, re-enact the process themselves without the need to have someone guiding them, then most likely we’ve failed as facilitators.

So, what is working given all these challenges? One suggestion our group had was to adopt approaches that put a human face and human experience at the centre of our theories of change, making them immediately more meaningful, at a time when many of us are questioning our individual role in making change happen. Methodologies like the Power Walk, which uncovers power and privilege, but also enable us to put ourselves into the shoes of others, to understand more about real-life hurdles, struggles, goals and dreams can enable this. The use of public narrative can help create stronger connections between our own life stories, and the wider change processes we are part of. Human centred design processes change the power dynamics of decision-making and can draw more effectively on participants personal experience to inspire creativity.

People feel frustrated that there is not enough space for proper discussion and to reach consensus, definitely an issue here in Latin America where deliberations often spill over from the workshop into dinner and evening chats.

Tools we commonly apply to theory of change work, such as those for context, problem, stakeholder and power analysis are still helpful, but they need to be applied in a less static way, which recognises the number of curve balls currently being thrown at us. One colleague has a simple tool called “The Wave”, which helps examine factors but also trends. Some are placed on the wave which is already “crashing onto us” and it’s important to make these visible, but in order to be more adaptive to context, it’s those that are behind the crest of the first wave, or even further out on the horizon we should be paying more attention to. Any surfer would say the same!

Approaches that help us challenge our assumptions about how change is happening are perhaps more important than ever. Bringing a diversity of participants, to share different perspectives on the same change process is crucial for that, and yet we consistently fail to get outside our own bubbles. Working online does potentially make it easier to do this, a chance to invite new voices in. When critical friends from other sectors are asked directly to unpick our theories of change, it can be a truly humbling and insightful way to uncover our many assumptions. Another way is to be much more scrupulous in testing the assumptions we make ourselves. Are trainings really going to increase women’s participation? Is more information going to change people’s behaviour? Is a global pandemic going to force governments to take measures to reduce inequality? More often than not it seems theories of change seem to bolster our worldviews rather than challenge them. Perhaps approaches which actively encourage a “paradox mindset”, being forced to consider opposing views, would help us avoid this trap and be more creative and effective.

Approaches that help us challenge our assumptions about how change is happening are perhaps more important than ever.

This is as far as we got. An initial conversation, a sharing of reflections and recognition that we will continue to think about these issues collectively. So, what challenges are you seeing? What successes have you experienced, and what approaches and tools have enabled these? There are of course other approaches out there – design thinking, foresight, scenario exploration – but has anyone found something easy to use, which you can run in a couple of hours online? We agreed that using a theory of change approach is still a useful way to engage critically with how change might happen. A good theory of change process inevitably reveals incorrect assumptions, disagreement, power imbalances and polarities, yet without the right tools, a shift to online working risks sterilising such discussions. That’s a big risk, as it is precisely that depth of analysis we need right now to navigate such complexity and uncertainty.

This blog is based on a couple of very open and honest conversations with ex-Oxfam colleagues Juan Carlos Arita, Stephanie de Chassy, Jennie Richmond and Monica Sanchez de Ocaña. We are continuing to collaborate and share practice and experiences, in the interests of sharpening our skills and learning from each other. 

Update: Great response from Tom Aston here

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15 Responses to “Right now, it feels like anything can derail everything, so are theories of change still useful?”
  1. Steve Perry

    I feel that the title of this piece, “Right now, it feels like anything can derail everything, so are theories of change still useful?” doesn’t speak to the content which is about how to facilitate TOC processes given on-line, work-from-home, social distancing constraints. Are theories of change still useful, despite the pandemic? Of course! The challenge is more about how to facilitate these processes when face-to-face meetings are largely off the table for some contributors.

    • Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez

      I think you might be right, Steve. Actually our conversation evolved from focusing on the online challenges, to something broader about the most useful approaches and methodologies in these times of such uncertainty. Maybe that hasn’t come out clearly enough in the blog, but it’s also an ongoing conversation.

  2. Thank you Thomas, I couldn’t agree more. I have found theories of change could often be fraught- held by a few more strongly or not widely aligned or understood. I have really valued outcome-mapping because because it addresses these issues I find. It brings different parts of the ecosystem- usually internal and internal – to align somewhat on what matters and how to assess success. If nothing else….A love to see… etc.. I think if we spent more time aligning on direction we could have better continual conversations about assumptions, emergence, need to change direction quickly? I have introduced and used outcome-mapping with a Food Alliance network here in Halifax comprised of different parts of the food system. The principles and high-level outcome maps were done in a brief workshop but strong application and carry-through needed some time. I’m happy to share what we did in that workshop.

    • Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez

      Thank you Nanci, really interesting. I actually had my first experience of facilitating outcome mapping processes this past year, one face to face and one entirely online, and must admit the latter was a bit of a struggle. That said, in both processes I was surprised by how many “outcomes” were actually more focused on process, including internal organisational processes. I’d love to learn more about how to ensure the focus remains on our interaction with how change is really happening in the world, and also ways in which it can be used for that more continuous conversation which enables adaptation. Outcome harvesting seems like quite an intense process, so finding a way to apply it in a “lighter” way would seem key in my view.

  3. Gawain Kripke

    Interesting discussion and thanks for this blog. One thing that I think a lot of TOC practice doesn’t make explicit is the iteration and strategy review. How often should we review/revise the TOC? How often should we review/revise our strategy and workplan around that TOC? I think our current socio-political context has meant that the review/revision cycle needs to a faster temp to accommodate the rapid change we are observing. One the one hand, you don’t want to jerk this way then that. On the other hand, Plans made 6 months ago can be very very obsolete by now. So getting that tempo and scoping right seems important.

  4. Mercedes Ward

    Thanks for this. I really like the suggestion that a “paradox mindset” might be useful. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that theories of change are subject to confirmation bias (I wonder if anyone here knows of research on this?). That is to say: we think the world works the way we think it does and not some other way. But maybe we’re wrong. To the extent that we surround ourselves with people who think very similarly to ourselves, we’re susceptible to confirming our own biases, even if they’re wrong. This is one argument for increasing viewpoint and experience diversity on teams.

    So, I agree with your point that it might be a useful exercise to have to defend one’s assumptions and arguments against “critical friends from other sectors.” (I see that Tom Aston’s response post — linked above — reiterates this.)

    I was never on a debate team, but as I understand it, teams are randomly assigned to argue for or against a motion – and teams win the debate according to the strengths of their arguments rather than which motion is “correct.” Similarly, if we can really examine our theories critically, then whatever can survive the gauntlet, so to speak, may be the most useful theory of change. The problem with this – as I assume readers of this blog are acutely aware of – is that some people have more power than others. So such “debates” can be dominated by those with the most prestige/power/status/authority. Since you wrote about online discussions, perhaps having an anonymous web-based forum for this kind of debate might bring out some interesting and radical ideas? I don’t know. But I appreciate being stimulated to think concretely about the challenge of developing theories of change.

    In any case, all theories are always going to be imperfect and incomplete models of the world and how change happens in it; thankfully some can be useful (to echo the statistician George Box). Again, as I think Aston was arguing in his Medium post, using systems theory to incorporate more and more factors in order to have a more “accurate” understanding of the world doesn’t necessarily lead to a more useful model.

  5. Very interesting post. You may find it useful to talk about this with peacebuilding practitioners as due to the unstable and uncertain state of the contexts in which we work coupled with the lack of access we have been having these discussions for years and have found various ways to adapt methodologies such as the ToC, Outcome mapping, Outcome harvesting, and others.

  6. SF

    You write “If participants cannot go back to them, re-enact the process themselves without the need to have someone guiding them, then most likely we’ve failed as facilitators”. Why that? We never say: if people cannot do their own budgets and handle finance, we failed as finance officers. Any organization will always recruit financial officers. So all staff will have some admin chores, but the work of putting together budgets and accounts will always be done by people with specialized skills. Re theories of change: people might own theories of change, but lack the skills to effectively facilitate their continuous development. The point is: competencies to support interaction and dialogue – which might be even harder to acquire than accounting skills – seem to be optional. Why don’t just we recognize that facilitation, planning… and similar skills are essential, but too often absent?

  7. Damaris Ruiz

    Interesante reflexión Thomas, las teorías de cambio ayudan hasta cierto punto y como decís lo más rico es el proceso en si, la oportunidad de dialogar, soñar, reflexionar y priorizar desde lo colectivo. En este mundo tan cambiante, todo se tiene que ir adaptando a los contextos y asumir los desafíos y oportunidades.
    Ahora bien, la virtualidad es otro asunto, tiene sus virtudes, pero también varias limitaciones. No me imagino facilitando el diseño de una teoría de cambio en línea, se ve super limitada la dinámica de la interación, el interpelar, el volver a la pared llena de tarjetas y replantear algunas cosas. En fin… mientras tanto, necesitamos avanzar, ya tendremos el momento de volver a los salones, a las calles.
    Muchas gracias Thomas.

  8. Anne K LaFond

    Great piece and a great discussion. In teaching TOCs we often encourage students to use them as a learning tool – not a blueprint. They are theories (whether grounded yet or now) to be tested and adapted. If used well, they fuel iteration and adaptation and evidence driven thinking and action.