For all you evaluators out there, 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 evaluation of advocacy, systems change, and other complex, dynamic settings.
However, TOCs are not tools for understanding the future – rather, they predict one possible, relatively narrow pathway into one possible future. Any seasoned advocate or systems change agent 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 strategies and interventions 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. The tools of decolonized foresight practices can go even further, bringing new voices and ways of understanding to the forefront. Foresight tools 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.
Next Step Resources:
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.
(This blog is a repost from the AEA 365 blog. The original post can be found here.)