Introduction

This Expert Lens looks at the crux of ToC development: assumptions. It is crucial to bring to the surface the assumptions upon which your success depends.

Assumptions represent the values, beliefs, norms, and ideological perspectives that inform the interpretations that people bring to bear on a change process.

Assumptions Affect Our Perspective and Choices

Shaped by our history, culture, education and psychology each person has personal values, aspirations and desires and sees the world around them in a particular way. Every person thus holds assumptions about what s/he believes to be true.

These assumptions affect us when we try to make sense of society and how we believe it changes or how it should change. Assumptions shape our perspective of the change process, and thus also our choices and decisions how to intervene. Often, implicit assumptions are taken for granted by some people, while other people may not share the same assumptions.

Assumption Identification: A Crucial Part of the ToC Process

While we take our assumptions for granted and often are not aware of them, they are not always valid. Therefore, a crucial part of ToC development is to bring to the surface the implicit assumptions upon which our success depends. Making these assumptions explicit helps us become aware of them, critically discuss and test them, and make adjustments where necessary. It helps us to examine whether they are guiding us to act in ways that are optimal for the context, people and changes that we seek.

How to Work With Assumptions

Six steps help you to work with assumptions:

  1. Identifying assumptions
  2. Distinguish different types of assumptions: world views, contexts, and mechanisms
  3. Formulating assumptions
  4. Prioritise assumptions: which are critical for our ToC?
  5. Validate assumptions: evidence, experience, or uncertain?
  6. Take action in case of uncertain critical assumptions: redesign, monitor, evaluate.

Changeroo and Assumptions

In Changeroo you use the Strategy Narrative “Validation & assumptions” to incorporate the assumptions underneath your ToC. This theme allows you to discuss all details for an assumption in a wiki page that you can also open up for stakeholder input and feedback.

Identifying Assumptions

Questions to Ask For Each Node or ‘Jump’ In the Causal Pathways

Where do you start with identifying assumptions and how do you go beyond the obvious ones? Sit together in front of your change pathways that will often be visualised as a series of interconnecting streams. For each jump between two levels of outcomes, turn to the different types of assumptions mentioned as part of the typology. Also ask yourself and each other the following:

  • If X happens, then will Y really be the result?
  • Why do we think X or Y will happen?
  • What are we taking for granted about relationships, social actors and their capacities?
  • Should anything specific be in place or avoided in our political, economic or organisational context?
  • Do people have the power to make the change we are assuming will happen: i.e. power to, power within, power over and power with?
  • What do we think motivates people to act, participate and change?
  • What needs to be in place to make this assumed causal relation work – and is this likely to be the case?
  • What are we assuming about how different pathways influence each other?

Focus for Discussions with Partners

Having partners articulate their assumptions and sharing your own assumptions can be a very useful basis for discussing weak points in a collective Theory of Change. It can lead to more realistic and complementary expectations about each other’s contribution to an intervention or change process.

Different Types of Assumptions

Examples

  • Assumptions about how groups will respond to our activities.
  • An assumption that a certain trend will continue.
  • An assumption we will be granted a certain license.
  • Assumptions about local circumstances while our outcomes depend on these conditions.
  • Assumptions that concern our value system: choices may be driven by our own convictions of what is right, which might not necessarily be the convictions within the communities we operate in.

Typology

There are different types of assumptions. Assumptions about: (i) world views or convictions, (ii) the context and (iii) the mechanisms between intervention and overall vision of success.

(i) World view assumptions

These are assumptions about the drivers and pathways of change, for example ‘social change best occurs by civil society demanding and building responsive government’. But also assumptions about the belief systems in society, which inform judgments about what is appropriate and feasible in a specific context. For example ‘homosexuality is unnatural and should not be condoned or supported through our work’. These assumptions raise the question whether our world views are shared by others.

Example: A collective or individual targeting approach?
Two NGOs implemented projects under the same EU umbrella programme: Linking Relief to Rehabilitation and Development in Sierra Leone (2002-2007). One NGO was convinced that a collective approach at village level worked best, while assuring all groups would be included. On the other hand, the other NGO was convinced of an individual, entrepreneurial approach, assuring profitability and sustainability. The underlying assumptions under these two different approaches were not made explicit and were not validated in evaluations. Such an evaluation could have taught us several things such as for what activities, under what conditions, and for what overall objective a collective approach or an individual approach would be best.

Example: Power and gender relations
The assumption is that traditional power relations need to be changed structurally to improve rights and chances for women. To what extent can we base these assumptions on experiences? Are these views shared by other stakeholders that we have to work with?

(ii) Context assumptions

These are assumptions about the context and the actors and factors at play. These assumptions raise the question to what extent we can use strategies in one context that have worked in another context.

Example: Different intrinsic motivation between governments
An assumption about the context is that governments agree with the chosen donor approach. But the intrinsic motivation may be different. For example, the Ethiopian government accepted a loan from the World Bank, who wanted to work on privatisation and liberalisation of the fertiliser import and distribution (1995-2002). But the Ethiopian government did not support privatisation, and used the loan to continue subsidising fertiliser distribution through the government.

Example: Assumptions about (lack of) political stability or freedom of expression.
An assumption about the level of political stability and freedom of expression is that these will be sufficient for effective planning and delivery of impactful results beneficial to community members.

(iii) Mechanism assumptions

Assumptions about mechanisms, the series of cause-effect relations between intervention and impact, often seem obvious but are not always well supported. Besides, other mechanisms may counteract. How sure are we about the mechanisms between interventions and impact?

GuijtGuijt, I. (2013) ‘Working with Assumptions in a Theory of Change Process’, Hivos ToC Reflection Notes 3. further specifies mechanism of causal assumptions:

  • Operational or implementation assumptions. For example ‘we assume that participants will turn up for the training we have scheduled’ or ‘the facilitator has aligned the content with participants’ needs’
  • Strategic assumptions or full pathway assumptions. For example ‘training will change people’s attitudes towards domestic violence, which in turn will change their behaviour’
  • Purpose-level assumptions. For example ‘small scale farmers will be able to supply to global markets if they have access to easy credit’

Example: From cash crops to food access
Higher income would lead to better food access. When farmers were encouraged to grow cotton in South West Mali in 1994, farmers indeed earned more money, but local food availability decreased resulting in higher food prices and lower food access.

Example: From water efficiency to over exploitation
An assumption in the water policy is that higher water productivity in agriculture reduces water over exploitation. This may not always be the case: perhaps the production has increased while there is still over exploitation of water.

Mayne

A different break-down of assumptions is provided by MayneMayne, J. (2015) ‘Useful Theory of Change Models’, Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, 30.2: 119-142.:


  • Reach assumptions
    : The assumptions are the events and conditions needed to occur if the outputs delivered are to reach and be positively received by the target groups. These could include such things as that the delivery of outputs actually reaches the intended audience and the outputs are seen as acceptable and worth considering. A key risk here is that the target group is not the “right” group, as in the case of the child nutrition intervention directed at mothers when they do not in fact make decisions about who gets what food, as well as actually reaching all of the intended target group and not, for example, just those who self-select.
  • Capacity change assumptions: These assumptions are the events that need to occur and the conditions that need to change if the outputs that reach the target populations are to result in changes in their knowledge, attitudes, skills, aspirations, and opportunities, that is, their capacity to do things differently. These could include such things as the outputs being understood, realistic, culturally acceptable, seen as useful, commensurate with the prior abilities and values of the target population, seen as relevant to the target group, and so on.
  • Behaviour change assumptions: These assumptions are the events and conditions needed to occur if the changes in the capacities of the target groups are to result in actual changes in their practices. These could include such things as financial capacity to make the practice changes, acceptance by others (such as peers, social, cultural and religious leaders, family) to make the changes, the practice changes shown to be useful, the policy or natural environment allowing the practices to be adopted, access to needed assets and supplies, and so on.
  • Direct benefits assumptions: These assumptions are the events and conditions needed to occur if the practice changes are to be realized as a direct benefit to the conditions of the targeted beneficiaries. These could include such things as change practices which result in a net increase in income, routine use of health services, involvement in decision-making, and so on.
  • Well-being change assumptions: The assumptions are the events and conditions that need to occur if the direct benefits are going to lead to changes in the well-being of the beneficiaries. For example, if children consume a better diet and if they have access to basic health care and improved sanitation, they will improve their nutritional and health status. If as a result of the intervention, women begin to play a greater role in food consumption decisions and if the intervention is seen as successful, this could contribute to a change in gender norms that empowers women.
  • Rationale assumptions: The overall underlying hypothesis or premise on which the intervention is founded, such as the assumption that informing household decision-makers about the benefits of nutrition for their children will change their behaviour and result in children getting a better diet.

Formulating Assumptions

Decide how you will formulate assumptions. An assumption can be worded in terms of the behaviour, reaction, or condition of a person, group or system. It is clearest if these are worded in positive terms. For example, ‘trainees implement according to their new business plans’, ‘the Department of Agriculture functions adequately in terms of staffing, systems, procedures and staff conditions of service’, or ‘girls feel confident to assert their rights’. Formulating them in this way allows you to assess how risky they are (see below).

Prioritise Assumptions

Whereas it may not be that difficult to come up with the most obvious assumptions, the challenge is to identify those assumptions that the organisation can influence, that are central to your strategic choices, and how to stretch yourself to go beyond the obvious ones.

Dealing with Too Many

After identifying and documenting the assumptions, you will probably have too many. To make it manageable you will need to identify those that:

  • Are most critical to success and, therefore, must be valid for expected results to happen – focus your design process and monitoring on these;
  • Have the highest risk of being invalid with severe consequences (see below);
  • Are the least clear, most contested, and need to be examined to reduce misunderstanding – decide how you will fill the knowledge gap or need to adapt your plan.

High Risk with Severe Consequences

A useful way to reduce the number of assumptions and focus on those that matter is to identify the critical or high-risk assumptions. High-risk assumptions have a high likelihood of being invalid and lead to serious consequences. A high likelihood of being invalid means that the assumption is probably not correct, e.g. ‘girls may well not feel confident about asserting their rights after having attended a training course’. Serious consequence assumptions are those that, if wrong, will have a major jeopardizing effect on the entire desired change process.

Support and Validate Assumptions

Assumptions need to be supported as much as possible, e.g. by review studies. How much effort are you willing to make to validate assumptions? For example, you can use advice by a research institute, or you can ask for a thorough review of other discourses, drawing from broader international science.

Use Your Assumptions to Define Your Learning Strategy

Inevitably you will have identified assumptions about issues on which you know too little. For example, one programme realised they did not know what farmers spent their extended credit on. Team members agreed that it would be unwise to assume the credit would be used to improve farming. This assumption needed more supportive data.

The critical assumptions about which little is known need to be followed up with some process to gather and make sense of the data. Check what is known from different sources of knowledge, rather than relying only on what you think you know. Perhaps you will need to collect some data, conduct a survey or develop a few case studies. Then you bring the team and key partners or stakeholders together to discuss which assumptions are still valid or seem to be questionable. Analysing the data together in order to update assumptions will keep your strategy and operational plan up to date.

Weak support

If the support for critical assumptions is still weak, give this assumption more attention so we can take action:

  • Redesign the intervention so it is less dependent on uncertainties
  • Closely monitor the intervention and adjust timely
  • Formulate the assumption as hypothesis for evaluation

If assumptions remain uncertain, one should seek agreement among the main stakeholders. If there is no agreement, then it is even more worthwhile to explicitly state these different assumptions so they can be validated later on. Do we know what assumptions are made by other stakeholders, governments, beneficiaries, or other organisations? Can we come to an agreed vision, or do we keep different views that can be validated later?

Example: Different assumptions by different stakeholders
Several governments aim at national food self-sufficiency of their staple crop to achieve food security, while other governments put emphasis on improving diet diversity and income to improve the nutritional status. The underlying assumptions can be validated, agreed upon and combined in a joint strategy.

Taking Action

Once you have identified a handful of high-risk assumptions, they will need strategizing and careful monitoring. The illustration below shows what can help:

  • Identify actions to reduce the risks;
  • Identify additional activities to compensate for possible impacts if high-risk assumptions do occur; or
  • Have alternative plans ready if assumptions prove to be invalid.

Assumptions under Complex Conditions

This approach works for assumptions about a course of events you can anticipate or imagine happening–the known. But what about when you work under complex or chaotic conditions about which much becomes clear after the fact? All kinds of assumptions will jump out and catch us by surprise! Those situations ask for more frequent reflections and corrective action. In fact, under such conditions, action might be the only way to reveal an assumption. In other words, you try out something (experiment) and see what happens. Whatever surprises us or does not happen as expected will reveal what our assumption was and serves as the basis for rapid reflection and identification of a new action based on a corrected assumption.

Update Assumptions

Assumptions are specific to a context and not static. Because they hold true for a certain period of time, they need to be looked at regularly and updated. Only then can they be used for guiding the development intervention or change process, hence the importance of monitoring and adaptive management.

Sometimes an idea starts out as an assumption and then evolves into a fact backed by evidence. Other assumptions, such as those regarding your value system and what you believe is right, are not an object of testing but of conviction.

More about Assumptions