Theories of Change, the muddy middle, and what to do about assumptions

Spent a happy 90 minutes last week connecting with a bunch of Oxfam campaigners taking part in its excellent Campaigns and Advocacy Leadership Programme. They had asked to discuss something which already feels a bit last decade – Theories of Change (ToCs).

My random thoughts (powerpoint below) were cautiously worded, because I have a growing fear that in becoming a new orthodoxy, ToCs (like logframes before them) will end up achieving the exact opposite of what they set out to achieve – disempowering rather than empowering; closing down imagination and innovation and turning us all into box-ticking zombies. A classic example of the hype cycle, in other words.

Here’s what I said (much of it familiar to regular readers of this blog, so apologies in advance), and then some of the things that struck me from the ensuing conversation:

We need to distinguish between theories of change (how the system itself is changing, without our involvement) and theories of action (the small differences we can make, usually in alliance with others). If theories of change start by putting us at the centre of everything, that is a serious problem – we almost never are. But I lost that battle, so let’s stick with ToCs.

In summary, ToCs should:

Provide a compass not a map

Aim for a best guess, not best practice

Ask the right questions, not prescribe the answers

Be based on local knowledge, not imported models (unless adapted)

Be iterative – stand back and test every X months, then revise

Incorporate antennae to read the changing external circumstances, and learn from success/failure

Be ‘the captain of the ship’ – Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning and donor relations should be at the service of the ToC, not the other way round!

Now onto the conversation, which clarified a few things for me:

The Bridge: There is a ‘muddy middle’ where you jump from analysis to ‘OK, what do we do?’ Sometimes it feels like the two have little connection, and the resulting business-as-usual campaign could have been designed without bothering with all that context analysis or stakeholder mapping. So we want the analysis to inform the strategy, but I worry if we set out a standard (linear?) way of doing that. The analysis will throw up a great universe of possible actions, which you can filter by thinking ‘what are we good at? What are others already doing better than us? How much difference could it make?’ But there has to be room for magic and creativity and instinct, for trying something crazy and/or new.

My compromise? Narrow the gap between analysis and strategy, but don’t completely bridge it – people need to make the creative leap, but they are less likely to plunge to disaster if the gap is narrower…. So do your stakeholder mapping, identify potential allies, opponents and swingers (see last week’s post), but don’t make it a cookie cutter process.

The Assumptions: With any ToC, a few minutes of serious thought will identify a dozen underlying assumptions behind the ‘if a then b’ framework. See my favourite ToCs cartoon on this. Oxfam’s default assumptions include ‘if we give people (whether communities or decision makers) more and better information, they will take action’ and ‘if enough people get organized, change will happen’, but there are lots of others (the people agree with us, the elites oppose us).

But after you have identified the assumptions, what next? At a minimum, see if research or reflection show them to be false, and maybe keep them in mind when you revisit the strategy, in case experience has done likewise. Then revise your strategy accordingly. But also it’s quite hard for people to identify their own assumptions, which is one of many reasons why getting diverse voices and ‘critical friends’ into the room can help.

Let sleeping ToCs lie? And then the biggest jaw drop moment of the conversation: not one of these seasoned campaigners could recall a campaign team ever getting the initial ToC off the virtual shelf and revisiting it. They are almost always dead documents, that served useful purposes of getting funding or building an initial team, but then they wither and die. If this is true, then maybe we should accept that that is their role, and focus on other ways of iterating and adapting our influencing work. Maybe have mini ToCs that we do every few months, that sit within an unchanging overall one, or think more about our strategic Rules of Thumb, rather than strategic plans.

As I say, a very thought-provoking session.

Some excellent previous research on the ‘Hidden life of ToCs’ here.

More good recent reflections on ToCs from Tom Aston and Thomas Dunmore-Rodriguez.

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14 Responses to “Theories of Change, the muddy middle, and what to do about assumptions”
  1. Sam Waldock

    The jump from ‘analysis’ to ‘so what’ is a critical one – it’s a dangerous moment, but can also be where the magic happens . It’s where orthodoxy and ‘the way we always approach this’ can jump in and reassert itself.
    I agree that narrowing the gap between the two is important. I have found (I) building in some genuine challenge is vital, especially from non development people who know the context deeply but don’t have the baggage of orthodoxy; (II) we often develop options for intervention as there are many paths. Ensuring that a few of those intervention options are creative and new, alongside the standard stuff helps keep them on the table.

  2. CathyS

    Interesting you say you lost the battle on the distinction between theories of action and change. My limited experience suggests more organisations are now making that distinction. Sounds like I’m wrong.
    Obviously context and contextual assumptions are all important, but where do you see mid level theory type evidence (as relates to causal assumptions) coming in?

    • Duncan Green

      ToCs v ToAs is just an impression Cathy, so delighted to hear you’ve heard otherwise. Don’t understand yr second para – wd you mind unpacking a bit for my marking-addled brain?

  3. Sarah Lister

    So my challenge is how to do a ToC (or ToA, I like that, never heard it before) for a global level programme ie one that will be implemented and contextualised in many places. If I am trying to take anything like a systems approach to development impact it quickly becomes meaningless at that level…am I right, or am I just generally prejudiced against complicated diagrams (I am)?

  4. Rajesh Veeraraghavan

    I just loved the political realism embedded in your post. The only thing I may want to add is that there maybe unintentional externalities that may come from writing these things.

      • Rajesh Veeraraghavan

        I remember for the longest time I was wondering the value for “theory of change., or more generally pontification about “doing”, instead of doing. Do we really don’t know what to do? Cynically, I used to wonder, whether this is a way for “make do” work that academics broadly defined are roped in to write something to justify the “anti politics machine”, which sometimes development thinking can be. There are plenty of examples of that. Since you wanted me to “elaborate”, let me share an anecdote that may serve as an “unintentional externality” of activity that may feel like make do work, but I think it has had radical consequences for the people who were involved in that thinking at-least.

        I used to an active volunteer in a group called AID (, which is largely a student-run organization that supports work of NGOs (and others) in India. We used to meet often weekly, spend many many hours debating the fine print of a developmental program, ask questions about their theories of change, what a particular expenditure is for and why, insist on a field trip by one of the volunteers at some point. This “due diligence” was functionally aimed at assessing the NGO’s project that they were proposing. In reality, at least to me, the unintentional benefit, was sensitizing us students to the broader issues that the poor and the marginalized face. This is not to say that there were no direct benefit in “due diligence” of the NGO and thinking about the theory of change etc, but I would say the greatest benefit of those thinking was to change the lives (hopefully for the better) for the people who were involved in reviewing those projects. I also heard from the NGO leaders that answering these questions and thinking with us students allowed some opportunity to pause and reflect on what they were doing and where they were going. There was some intellectual satisfaction that reflection brought, which was meaningful for NGOs as well. That is one example. To go even one step further, what is the benefit of “thinking” about “development”, and “research” more broadly. Do we really need one more book and a “theory of change” to make it liveable for everybody? It is easy to answer that question in binary terms. But, I have convinced myself, self-servingly maybe, that there is some value in the act of such thought, for the person who is doing the thinking, others who may read the work and get drawn into doing something about it, ie the metadata matters more than the content of what is written. Sorry this has turned into a windy post. But I am happy to do more focused thinking and get back to you! 🙂

  5. Joe

    It feels that over the last couple of years – with the election of Trump, Brexit, COVID, and the war in Ukraine – we have all become less confident in predicting what will happen. and what is ‘normal’. That is likely to have an impact on how we think about thoeries of change

  6. Monalisa Salib

    Hi Duncan, I share some of your insights and concerns about ToC. Ultimately, I think it’s important to have the general compass pointing you towards your North Star and work through some tough questions to make sure your thinking is based on the local context and what is really possible. We put together a ToC workbook for USAID/Vietnam that you can find linked below. While it does try demystify the process in a step-by-step way, we felt teams needed that so they didn’t just go on and on in an aimless way. The steps are trying to help you create the magic by asking you a series of critical questions so that hopefully teams end up with context-specific, locally-valued, and useful theories of change that they can come back to during implementation and use to design their MEL/adaptive management approach. The ToC Workbook: and our blog explaining the resource:

  7. Catharine Buckell

    My challenge is how to incorporate a diversity of views in the ToC. I recently facilitated a ToC workshop. The organisation had made sure that people from every team attended and I tried to facilitate the workshop in a way that made everyone feel that their ideas were valued and that there was no “right” answer. I emphasised that in many ways the conversation itself was more important than the output. But my concern is that people who have worked for an organisation for a long time who are used to hearing about how the organisation thinks and does things are likely to just repeat those things in a ToC workshop so I’m not sure how much of what was said was people’s own ideas. How do you get people to think outside the box and challenge pre-conceptions and the way things have always been done? Especially people who’ve worked for an organisation for a long time.

    • Good question Catharine. In some ToC workshops I’ve been part of (which sound similar to yours), we’ve specifically brought in external people (from social movements, academia, private sector and even government) to act as critical friends. Not necessarily for the whole workshop but at critical stages, like the problem analysis (fish-bone), the setting of objectives, or when we have a very initial draft of a ToC on the wall.

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