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Level of specification
by Changeroo
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How much detail and specification should a Theory of Change offer? This expert lens offers several complementary perspectives as well as implementation exercises to perfect it.

The Appropriate Level of Detail

How deep will you drill down into a change process? The appropriate level of detail of a ToC and its elements depends on various factors:

  1. The purpose of the ToC. For example, a ToC used for external communication may need less detail than a ToC to inform operational planning. Therefore, you may want to develop multiple versions of your ToC: one that tells the big-picture story and one that informs impact management.
  2. The complexity of the change process: how much information would a reader need to understand the change logic? As the complexity of reality increases, so will the desired complexity of your ToC.
  3. The extent to which the change process is understood and the volatility of the context: if the changes sought are relatively unknown, or the context is very volatile, you are likely to identify less detailed information than for a more familiar change process in a relatively stable environment.
  4. The importance for understanding your change story and intervention rationale. The more fundamental a ToC element or pathway is as a contributory factor to societal value creation, the more reason to go into more detail for that part.
  5. Stakeholder expectations: the level of detail and discussion that key stakeholders expect.
  6. Contributing to identity and strategic issues: if a part of your ToC is really important to people their understanding of your organisation’s identity and or as to why certain issues are high on your strategic agenda, this warrants a higher level of detail.

It’s important to try and make a complex ToC easy to read. To this end, features such as nested ToCs and grouping are available.

Aim for “Good Enough”

How precise does a ToC need to be? When developing a ToC, there is a risk that you want to try to get it ‘perfect’, especially at the outset. But if you seek to include all possible elements and linkages, you run the risk of building a complex and chaotic model that few will understand and even fewer will be able to use.

The challenge is to come to a relatively simple but still complete representation of how change happens and why the activities will make your vision of success a reality. A general rule that can help to decide when good is good enough, reads:

The sum of elements and relationships are expected to be sufficient to realize the desired result. They represent our best thinking on exactly that what is needed for the intervention to work.

Exercise to Reduce the Complexity of Your ToC: Necessary vs. Sufficient

Thinking in terms of ‘necessary’ and ‘sufficient’ can help you eliminate unnecessary ToC elements and identify and address any overly large leaps in your ToC. A cause is necessary for an effect if that effect cannot occur without that cause. A cause or group of causes is sufficient if it can sufficiently explain its effect, without the influence of any additional causes.

Ask yourself two questions for each element in your ToC:

  • Is this change/condition necessary for the next one to happen?– If it is not, then the change can be removed.
  • Is this change/condition sufficient for the next one to happen?– If it is not, then consider what additional changes and conditions are required to create sufficient change.

Next, we examine three more exercises that may help you examine and improve your ToC its level of detail:

  1. Mayne and Johnsson (2015) present a framework with the different steps that lead to behavioural change. It may help you reflect on whether each of these steps is incorporated in your ToC.
  2. Vaessen distinguishes between three levels of detail: causation, warrants and causal assumptions.
  3. The sustainability literature uses the concept of ‘materiality’ to decide on whether an issue is important enough to include in your ToC.

1) Exercise to Examine the Logic and Completeness of ToC Pathways Grounded In Behavioural Science

Mayne and Johnsson (2015) offer a structured generic ToC framework (grounded in behaviour science) that can be used to examine the logic and completeness of ToC pathways.

They offer an alternative framework to the traditional distinction between inputs-activities-outputs-context-outcomes-impact. Their framework “uses the more intuitive notions of reaching some target group, changing their motivation and behaviour, which results in direct benefit to them and subsequent improvements in their wellbeing”.In the framework “reach and reaction represent the target groups who are intended to receive the intervention’s goods and services and their initial reaction.”

This provides a structured framework to examine the logic and completeness of your ToC’s pathways:

  • Is each element of this framework present in each pathway of your ToC? The framework clearly defines the elements and their causality. Generally you will expect to see each element of this framework also in each pathway of your ToC.
  • Research suggests that behavioural change requires multiple conditions: needs, opportunities and abilities or as the framework mentions: knowledge, attitude, aspiration, skills and opportunities. Does your ToC cover each of these to achieve the behavioural change you’ve set out, either as element or assumption?

2) Incorporate Causation, Warrants and Causal Assumptions

Vaessen (2016)Jos Vaessen (2016) What is (good) program theory in international development? World Bank blog, available at distinguishes between three levels of ToC specification in ascending order of explanatory power and robustness: causation, warrants and causal assumptions.

As means of illustration Vaessen uses the example of payments for environmental services (PES). The basic premise underlying PES is that different forms of land use have implications for the provision of environmental services such as biodiversity, carbon sequestration (related to climate change) or (ground) water quality and regulation. The problem is that there is usually no market for these environmental services. Consequently, private land users do not have an incentive to invest in land uses that supply them. Offering payments to private land users for the generation of these services intends to overcome this problem.

With this example in mind let us now turn to the three levels of ToC specification.

Level 1: Simple successionist causation

Many international development interventions rely on this type of ToC. A simple successionist causal theory is specified as a series of causal steps of the type A leads to B. For example, payments for environmental services provided to farmers (A) leads to farmers changing their land use by introducing land use practices that are more likely to generate environmental services (B). There is usually not much detail to the theory and one is left with a rather limited perspective on causality.


Level 2: Successionist causation with warrants

The warrant refers to the why part in the theory. In our example, A is expected to lead to B because adoption of the environmentally more friendly land use practice (i.e. conservation with payment for service) is estimated to be privately more profitable than deforestation, a clear incentive for farmers to adopt the practice. In addition, adoption of the land use practice is also profitable from a societal perspective as long as the premium paid to farmers per unit of land is lower than the costs per unit of land for continuing the more environmentally destructive land use (i.e. deforestation and use for pasture).

Level 3: Causation with warrants and causal assumptions

The most detailed level of theory specification provides information on both the warrants and the circumstances in which it is more or less likely for B to occur as a result of A. Let us call the warrant presented above W. In our example, A leads to B, because of W, under certain circumstances (C). For example, C could refer to household-specific constraints in terms of labour or the knowledge needed to apply the land use practices. C could also refer to farmers’ beliefs and attitudes with regard to innovations. The type of causal approach that characterizes a “level 3” theory is the bread and butter of inter alia realist evaluators, who put human agency at the centre of evaluative inquiry. Rather than simple successionist causation, the realist perspective relies on the principle of generative causation: what works for whom and under what circumstances. As is the case for the warrants, the causal assumptions can (and should) be vested in (social science) theory.

3) A perspective from environmental sustainability: Materiality

Whether or not to include certain outcomes and impacts in a ToC can be decided based on what is known in the sustainability literature as ‘materiality’. Only those outcomes and impacts are to be included if they concern issues that potentially affect stakeholders’ decisions and the organisation’s ability to create, preserve or erode economic, environmental and social value. See further discussions on materiality under “opportunities and threats”.