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Theories of Change: 3 Common Pitfalls

In this article I will briefly discuss 3 hidden dangers with designing Theories of Change (TOC). To refresh your memory, a TOC as the name suggests, is the organisation’s theory on how they think the intended changes they hope to see will come about. You can read more on the definition of the TOC and the background here.

Without further ado, the pitfalls are as follows;

1. Focusing on the Art and forgetting the Science

I suspect that the popular appeal of TOCs is the freedom it gives to express one’s creativity with the visual presentation. As such, some TOCs rival works of art that you would see hung on the walls of a gallery. TOCs have been illustrated as houses, flowers, birds etc.

‘This TOC will be a masterpiece when completed!’

However, in being swept away with the art, many organisations forget about the ‘science’. That is, TOCs should be evaluable. What exactly does this mean? Well, someone (usually an evaluator) should be able to test the TOC.

Though there are no prescriptions for what constitutes a ‘proper’ TOC, there is a general consensus that at the very minimum, a TOC should have an outcomes pathway with causal links.

The outcomes pathway depict how one action/intervention leads to another until the ultimate change is achieved. By being evaluable, the causal links and structure of the connections should not only make sense to the layperson, but an evaluator should be able to test the plausibility of these causal links.

If your head is spinning from all of this, don’t worry, there is an excellent publication by Rick Davies that focuses on the technical challenges involved in designing a TOC that is evaluable. What’s nice is that the publication even goes a step further and highlights how these challenges might be resolved (see reference at the end of this blog post).

2. Getting ‘off balanced’

Many organisations sometimes find themselves performing a balancing act. That is, to design a TOC that is simple enough to be easily understood by the intended users but also detailed enough to capture the complexity of the intervention and/or the real world.

‘How am I going to get out of this quandary?

Once again, there is another publication to the rescue (also cited at the end of this blog post). It is written by Dhillon and Vaca and gives practical tips on how to visually present TOCs that do not oversimplify complex interventions nor overcomplicate simple interventions.

3.Quest to make the TOC a one size fits all

Another common pitfall when designing TOCs is that there is no clear intent on the purpose and intended use of the document. Is it only for programme implementation? Is it for lobby and advocacy purposes? Is it to be used as part of the evaluation? Is it a strategy document for internal or external use?

With the absence of a universal set of agreed minimum standards, there are divergent thoughts on what really constitutes a TOC.

Some argue that the logical framework (with the ‘if…and…then’ statements with arrows connecting the outputs to outcomes to the eventual impact) is essentially a TOC (Davies, 2018). As such, some TOCs are just more artistic versions of logic models and log frames with one author even questioning whether the TOC is not just a ‘log frame on steroids’ (Oxfam, 2012).

Others argue that TOCs are distinct from logic models and log frames as they add extra layers. They go beyond mere activities and provide the actual theory behind the intervention to explain how the results will be achieved (Dhillon and Vaca, 2018).

All of these different thoughts and approaches have led to TOCs that try to be ‘the be all and end all’; the Strategic Plan (rife with the Mission Statement and organisational jargons), the promotional piece (highlighting the many high profile activities being conducted), the programme document (showing how the activities and which outputs lead to which outcomes and the impact) etc.

As a result, similar to pitfall number 2, the TOC runs the risk of being overcomplicated, very detailed and hard to understand. To rectify this, I propose a simple solution.

Always keep in mind the main aim on the TOC; to show the change you envision and the (causal) path to get there. For every element that is added, question if it is really a crucial pathway to get to the end result. If it is not, leave it out.

Only include the required parts for operationalisation

Anyhow, hopefully this short blog post has piqued your interest to gather more in-depth knowledge of TOCs from the publications cited below. They will help you to avoid these common pitfalls.

What are your thoughts on this article? Let me know by leaving a comment. If you liked what you read, remember sharing is caring, so hit the “Like” Button and spread the word on social media so others may benefit from the information. All of the above actions will help me to know which topics are more interesting for you (which means I keep writing them ;-)).


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​​​Ann-Murray Brown

Monitoring, Evaluation and
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