Theorising pig flight

“Everyone these days (funders, bosses etc) seems to be demanding a Theory of Change (ToC), although when challenged, many have only the haziest notion of what they mean by it. It’s a great opportunity, but also a risk, if ToCs become so debased that they are no more than logframes on steroids.”

That was Duncan Green writing a couple of months back. I totally dig the turn of phrase, but (luckily!) have so far escaped any such experiences of being enslaved to a donor’s preconception of what a ToC should look like. On the other hand I do find logframes (or ‘lockframes’ in the memorable corruption) more than a bit tiresome such that I might be inclined to reverse the comparison, and describe logframes as theories of change on steroids.

If you are worried that you might fall into that class of people who “have only the haziest notion” of what a ToC is then you can go read Duncan’s blog post (plus an excellent selection of comments) or Google for a whole bunch of other informative web sites. But over in this little corner of cyberspace I quite like my ignorance of the more formal definitions. Not that the above sources are not useful, quite the opposite, but I prefer the ‘pornography test’, which is to say I believe I have a pretty good intuitive idea of what a theory of change looks like, and I reckon I know one when I see one.

To me a ToC is primarily just a reasoned explanation of how what one proposes to do will actually deliver the impact you expect to achieve. It can be summarised in nicely boxed flow diagrams and the like, but for me the real test of a ToC is that it can stand up to reasoned, sceptical argument.

Where, I believe, so many conservation and development projects go wrong in their design, is not in their use or lack of use any particular framework, but in just plain sloppy thinking and lack of self-criticism. Part of the problem in development, it seems to me, is that we are too often too nice to each other, and not inclined to criticise (constructively!). This challenge can be exacerbated when discussions cross cultural boundaries: local ownership and deference to regional social norms are important, but should not trump having a workable plan in the first place.

Conversely we are also often too formal. A single written proposal, however, well constructed is never as satisfying as being able to discuss and probe people’s plans in person. And who reads those tediously long project documents any way? The result: too many projects approved primarily on the basis of the executive summary, without real testing of assumptions. And that’s when those flashy graphics really come into their own: great for communicating the central thrust of an idea, useless at exposing logical fallacies.

MJ’s theory of porcine aerodynamics: flashy graphics may not stand up to serious scrutiny.

MJ’s theory of porcine aerodynamics: flashy graphics may not stand up to serious scrutiny.

So I like donors who are prepared to get into a real conversation with their grantees, to get to know them and their plans a bit better. Such relationships can more easily support adaptive management, which in turn allows you to be a bit more relaxed about any flaws in the original proposal, because now you have a framework in which to manage deviations from the plan.

And how do you succeed with all those awkward discussions in which design flaws are impertinently probed? As one of the commenters on Duncan’s post put it: “the first order of business is to build TRUST.”

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