Thinking like Aesop: Visualizing theory of change

Published March 2014 for Inciter/Carson Research Consulting

What are theories of change meant to do?  As evaluators, we need to define what it is we are examining and measuring—naming outcomes, uncovering assumptions, describing cause and effect relationships, and articulating the pathway of change intended by the program implementers.  This diagram of the logic and belief about how our efforts will achieve impacts are used to measure the progress of work and test the validity of what we really know about the world and our role in changing it. 

We expect our theory of change to communicate the importance of the key concepts of the model, our ideas of interconnection and causality, and how we think we can respond to and change the many variables around us.  This graphic of boxes-and-arrows representing our logic is one way of making a complex situation understandable and to more clearly see our individual roles amidst the confusion of a lot of other actors and forces.  (Requires free registration)

But in complex work like community and social change involving many organizations and individual partners, theories are also important vehicles of communication intended to create a shared understanding of the values and intent of an initiative (Weiss, 1995).  The structured and disciplined mapping of variables and relationships helps many evaluators and program implementers focus and keep track of key elements. But it may still not communicate well to many people who are demanding a simpler, yet more nuanced, representation of their point of view and expectations for change. 

Throughout my evaluation work in complex change programs and initiatives, I have logged many hours of conversations, discussions, and planning meetings, and what I have noticed most was that although the traditional graphical theory of change

did help people focus on a few important elements of how change could be expected to happen, it did not help them understand the priorities, values, and complex interactions and relationships involved both in how their individual roles contributed to change as well as the complex nature of change with positive and negative feedback loops and unintended consequences.  As someone who has been involved in evaluations for more than 20 years, I now try and contain my own passionate enthusiasm for logic and theory and their usefulness and simply expect to be greeted by “matrix phobia,” glazed eyes, criticism of linear thinking, and outright hostility toward the abstract.  Most people do not use language of IF and THEN and SO THAT naturally.  What I hear more often is people describing what they meant not in mechanistic or engineered systems ways, but by using used story, metaphor, and analogy to describe how they see change occurring and why. 

I have heard people describing complex interrelationships and change as the sun and planets with changing orbits, satellites and gravity, sunlight and growth, and even familiar old fables.  Now some evaluators are embracing the importance of narrative, metaphor, and story especially as it helps express and communicate within and across cultures.  (Metaphors and more in culturally responsive evaluationDavidson, 2010)

If one of the goals of using theory of change is to improve communication and increase the shared understanding of the enterprise, then what will it take for me to think less like an engineer and more like Aesop?

Weiss, Carol Hirschon. 1995. “Nothing as Practical as Good Theory: Exploring Theory-based Evaluation for Comprehensive Community Initiatives for Children and Families.” In New Approaches to Evaluating Community Initiatives: Concepts, Methods, and Contexts, ed. James Connell et al. Washington, DC: Aspen Institute.  

Metaphor as a tool to support insight.