Focus on… Theory of Change

butterfly emerging

If you’ve ever been involved in a change initiative, chances are, somewhere along the line, you have come across a kind of ‘magical thinking’ whereby those proposing the changes miss out many of the details of the necessary steps to get from the ‘here and now’, to the proposed change. Inherent is this kind of approach, are unstated assumptions, for example, that some action will ‘just work’, and a lack of a ‘chain of causality’ – the steps which logically follow on, one from another, until the goal is achieved.

Theory of Change (TOC) was developed as a tool to address these missing elements in the design of change, and provide a framework to document, clearly, the path from the current situation to the desired goals.

As a visible reference of the design of the change, TOC can fulfil a variety of functions.

  1. It provides a visible map to the change initiative, including milestones.
  2. It creates a testable hypothesis for how the change will happen.
  3. It provides a design for evaluation at the same time as it maps the steps to the change.
  4. It communicates clearly the complexity of the process, and provides a document to which all stakeholders can give agreement.

The first step in creating a TOC is to work backwards from the desired endpoint and map outcomes that will logically lead to that goal, also drawing in the connections between these. Once that set of outcomes are decided, move backwards again mapping the outcomes that logically lead to those, and so on, until you have reached the current state. Outcomes will be added, deleted and amended many times, potentially, in this mapping process, and the discussions that stakeholders have while mapping are an extremely valuable part of the TOC process.

Simple Outcomes Pathway
Simple Outcomes Pathway – image by Eleberthon under CC ShareAlike 3.0 licence

The next step is Developing Indicators. This is where the existing outcomes are ‘fleshed out’ with details which will be measurable. Each indicator seeks to answer the questions; Who will change? What proportion do we require to achieve for this to be a success? What is the measurement of success? When does this have to happen by?

The next step is to identify any assumptions that are inherent in the steps already covered. For example, if one of the identified outcomes is ‘Course graduates are ready to step into leadership roles’, it is possible that there is an assumption that leadership roles exist to be ‘stepped into’.

In a preceding step, outcomes were identified and connected with lines to show their causal relationship. In this stage these causal relationships are further examined. If an outcome can be connected to a later outcome (or end goal) with a solid line it means that one logically leads to the other without further need for intervention, for example, ‘learners attend course’ might logically lead to ‘learners gain attendance certificate’ but not necessarily to ‘learners gain qualification’. Such a connection would be connected with a dotted line to indicate that some intervention or evaluation needed to take place at this point to create a complete map of the change and how it will be achieved.

Theory of Change is just as valid a tool in the design of learning as it is in any other kind of proposed change, and can act as a very useful addition to the OOO (Objectives, Outcomes, Outputs) approach to learning design. There is a danger that many assumptions will creep into the OOO approach. One that is particularly problematic is the assumption that the achievement of individual learning outcomes will necessarily aggregate into the achievement of collective (organisational) objectives, without considering aspects which traditionally fall outside the remit of ‘learning professionals’. For example, these aspects might include, the agency (or lack thereof) of learners to implement new skills learned, the support, or not, of line management for new behaviours, lack of opportunity to engage in changed practices, and so on.

Broken chain

Using Theory of Change alongside OOO can alert learning designers and other stakeholders to these assumptions and other gaps in the chain of causality, allow appropriate additional measures to be put in place and thus give the learning initiative the best possible chance to appropriately contribute to the desired changes in an organisation.

As a design tool for learning, TOC can also obviously be a valuable aid when taking learning design into learning game design allowing us to map the complete and logical map of learning change onto the experiences we design into the games and gamification which support it.

Sarah Le-Fevre is a games-based learning professional who specialises in organisational learning around systemic ‘wicked problems’, and helping businesses spot and exploit opportunities for ethical ‘for good’ innovation. She works with tools such as Lego® Serious Play® and the Octalysis gamification framework to create compelling immersive learning experiences. She is currently writing a book outlining a systems practice approach to delivering impactful learning within organisations.

A real board games nerd, she is considering having her floors reinforced to support the ever increasing weight of the boxes. When she is not designing or facilitating learning games she is the editor of Ludogogy Magazine, and also the community facilitator for Speculative Optimism, a futures-thinking based co-creation project to imagine and then realise better futures for people and planet. Sarah lives in Oxfordshire with her husband, younger daughter, and a beautiful (but very loud) Bengal cat. Contact her at

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