Hello friends. I’m Jewlya Lynn, a systems change strategist and evaluator. I’m here today to challenge your thinking. Let’s begin with a basic question:
What is a theory of change (TOC)?
At its core, it’s a prediction about the future, and typically about a specific future where interventions result in outcomes, ultimately leading to a desired impact. And they have long been a core part of how evaluators have thought about APC evaluation.
However, TOCs are not tools for understanding the future – rather, they predict one possible, relatively narrow pathway into one possible future. Any seasoned advocate knows that the future is not that predictable and pathways to change and outcomes shift often, even if the intended impact remains the focus.
Why, then, do we continue to develop TOCs even in dynamic, complex settings? Perhaps because we lack alternative tools for articulating how advocacy might make a difference in the world.
This is where the tools of foresight become useful. Foresight is the act of looking to and thinking about the future. The tools of foresight are systematic and can be very participatory. They help to articulate multiple possible futures and understand what is most relevant across and within them. These future stories have supported present-day decision-making in many settings.
Leading evaluators have called for foresight work to benefit from evaluation (e.g. Michael Quinn Patton’s article in the World Futures Review and the Association of Professional Futurist’s Evaluation Task Force, led by Annette Gardner, launched at a forum that explored whether foresight really works).
In my experience, foresight has just as much to offer evaluation. For example, in advocacy evaluations, I’ve replaced TOCs with scenario maps. Collaboratively with advocates, we’ve developed an understanding of multiple possible futures, and how each looks different in its drivers of change, strategies, needed capacities, and possible outcomes. This diversity of futures allows the evaluation to prepare measurement strategies in response to what unfolds, not based on static plans, and to stay aware of and learning from the dynamic context side by side with advocates.
If I’ve caught your interest, here are a few resources to get started and below are two of my favorites:
- The Three Horizons Framework will help you explore the relationship between today, a long-term vision, and assumptions about how change may emerge along the way.
- Sohail Inayatullah’s Causal Layered Analysis opens up the “present and past to create alternative futures.” It helps investigate problems and causes alongside underlying worldviews, metaphors and myths. Doing this work reminds us to not just measure strategies and outcomes, but also to explore how deeper dynamics are part of the process of change. Check out Inyatullah’s TED talk and paper.
Next time you pull a TOC out of your evaluator’s toolbox, try putting it away and exploring how a foresight technique can help you and your partners find meaning and measurement amid uncertainty about the future, rather than attempting to predict where predictions are meaningless.
PS. Want to dig deeper? Check out Andrew Curry’s vision for when and how TOCs can be integrated with futures work.
The American Evaluation Association is hosting APC TIG Week with our colleagues in the Advocacy and Policy ChangeTopical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our AP TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to email@example.com. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.
3 thoughts on “APC TIG Week: Why you should include a foresight practice in your evaluation toolkit by Jewlya Lynn”
“However, TOCs are not tools for understanding the future – rather, they predict one possible, relatively narrow pathway into one possible future. ”
You’re treating TOCs as deterministic; which they are not. The second assumption here is that TOCs are exhaustive in outlining potential mechanisms of change; again, a dubious assumption. While TOCs may capture a few central causal pathways with respect to assumed program impact, they rarely make specific predictions – at least precise enough to call them “one possible future”. None of these comments negate the need for good planning and thought with respect to developing a TOC. Moreover, evaluation itself can include mixed methods for understanding “what happened”.
It’s engaging to think about how part of an evaluator’s job is to try their best to anticipate the changes that a program can have in a community, along with the many challenges that there is no telling can arise along the way.
Thank you Jewlya for this posting, …it is surprising that ToC thinking and foresight methods have remained in such separate worlds for so long. It is time to get them talking…
Can I encourage you and your readers to take a look at ParEvo.org, -a web-assisted participatory scenario planning process, one of many different foresight tools/approaches now available.