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How can ToC thinking help in programme design and planning?
by Centre for Development Innovation
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In this section, you will find some information on how ToC can be used to design and develop effective strategies. It deals with ToC and Programme Design: Building the foundation for strategic choices, planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning.

All actors involved in change processes, whether individuals or organisations, have ideas (“theories”) about how change happens and how it could be brought about. These ideas are based on our history, our values and the assumptions we make. These ideas and assumptions are often largely implicit, that’s why they are also called ‘tacit’ theories of change. Our view to change shapes the way we design programmes and make strategic choices.

Surfacing and developing the theory(ies) of change of your organisation, programme or project will assist you to make focused and well thought-out choices in your strategies and programme design and to explain the reasoning behind them. It helps you to reflect on the perspectives and interests of other actors involved and what that means for your strategies, and to engage in strategic collaborations and partnerships that can lead to greater impact. It will provide you with a strong foundation for strategic planning, an M&E framework and a reflection and learning process. If well used, the ToC will often be revisited and updated in the course of the programme, taking into account lessons learned and changing circumstances.

Ideally, a ToC analysis for programme design is done through an interactive process with the main actors involved, in order to bring different perspectives together, explore possibly different perspectives, assumptions and belief systems, and to foster a shared understanding and a sense of ownership and shared responsibility.

A ToC process for programme design will generally start with a formulation of the desired change, and an analysis of the ecosystem: context analysis, actor analysis and power analysis, all including gender analysis. A lot of assumptions will already be identified in this stage of the process. The outcomes of these analyses will provide the basis for an exploration of possible strategies, including the involvement of other actors, and a projection into the future of the intended change process. This can take the form of results or outcome chains or ‘pathways of change’, or another representation of intended outcomes, such as a map or web of intermediate steps towards (or preconditions for) the desired change. How the changed conditions would look like will help in the identification of indicators of change. This joint discussion of the intended change process clarifies the assumed cause effect relations of possible programme interventions and will generate even more assumptions.

The most critical contribution that a rigorous ToC process can make is to clarify and make explicit assumptions that the people and organisations involved have about change in their context and about what is needed to realise the short and longer term outcomes.

Formulating and documenting these assumptions is important to identify the critical factors that may affect your work.

ToC and Planning

Going through a ToC analysis and reflection with staff and stakeholders will help to design a more realistic planning, as the participants discuss and agree what type of change is needed and possible, and what is not achievable or within the sphere of their direct influence, taking into account the available resources and the time frame.

The projection of the intended change process forms the basis for the actual planning and helps to clarify how activities are expected to produce the intended results, why and how early results are expected to evolve into intermediate results and why and how these are expected to contribute to longer term change. As the ToC process includes detailed context-focused discussions this strengthens the plan in terms of considering critical and less crucial contextual issues. The identification of the different actors and their roles, as part of the context analysis, will enhance the understanding of stakes and stakeholders and lay the basis for (seeking) collaboration with other actors. The assumptions that have been articulated will help to focus the plan further and underpin the choice of strategies. It is important that the participants in the programme articulate the non-negotiable values to guide the implementation process.

In any programme or project the planning will be reviewed regularly and adapted where necessary, based on the monitoring process. But in complicated or complex programmes and environments iterative or adaptive planning is even more important. In addition to changes in the context, the intervention itself may trigger reactions and changes in relationships or social dynamics that could not have been foreseen.