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Step - Pathways of change
by Changeroo
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Pathways of Change are causal chains of changes (i.e. intermediate outcomes) leading to your Vision of Success. Pathways are developed by explaining the relationships between inputs, activities, outputs, context, intermediate outcomes, and final outcomes or impact.

Pathways of Change provide a logical organisation of relationships and interdependencies between the building blocks of your ToC. They help to navigate the change process; providing clarity while still reflecting on the complexity of the context in which you operate.

Roadmap versus Compass

Conceptually, a ToC can be seen as a roadmap or as a compass.For a more detailed overview of the discourse about ToCs as products and processes, roadmaps and compasses see: Valters, C. (2015) Theories of Change: time for a radical approach to learning in development. Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Available at:

The roadmap perspective sees pathways as the “map to get you from here to there”Center for Theory of Change: the itineraries to reach your destination. Intermediate changes are the milestones along the routes. They are the necessary and sufficient waypoints to explain how you intend to reach your intended destination: your Vision of Success. The compass perspective sees pathways as the “best guesses about the future”: the compass helping you to “discover a path as you go along”D. Green (2015) ‘Where Have We Got to on Theories of Change? Passing Fad or Paradigm Shift?’ From Poverty to Power Blog, 16 April, Social change processes are seen to be “always in flux, with emergent issues, unforeseen risks and surprises arising throughout”R. McGee & J. Gaventa (2010) ‘Review of Impact and Effectiveness of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives’. Synthesis Report. Brighton: IDS..

Remember that ToCs are about testing your hypotheses on how change might happen. In some contexts you may be more certain about this process than in others, where you will have to experiment a lot. Acknowledging that social change is complex and unpredictable, and being modest about influencing these processes, does not mean it is impossible to plan. It does mean that plans need to be flexible, monitored continuously and adjusted regularly.

Pathways are thus pieces of the puzzle, interacting to contribute to your Vision of Success. The combined pathways demonstrate your reasoning about how you expect to create societal value within the context you operate in. It helps answer the question: Which different strands of change will contribute to your Vision of Success? What activities and inputs will you contribute? What are your expectations about actions of others? How will you engage with factors that may inhibit the change process?

How to Develop Pathways of Change

A ToC involves developing Pathways of Change, regardless whether a roadmap or compass perspective better serves your context and needs. Pathways are developed by first identifying the change that you seek to contribute to: your Vision of Success.

Subsequently you ask yourself which preconditions or milestones have to be in place to increase the likelihood of the expected change actually materializing. Which intermediate outcomes are necessary and sufficient to provide a plausible explanation about your expected change process?

This process of asking what the necessary and sufficient changes are to explain how a change happens is called backward mapping. Pathways emerge while mapping the change process and specifying the relationships and interdependencies within your ToC by connecting different ToC elements. In this process of exploring how change happens, you can benefit from ongoing context analyses about relevant trends and actors, and draw on your previous experiences.

A final step in the development of pathways is identifying possible contributions you can make to this process. This is where your strategies, interventions, activities and outputs and inputs come in (i.e., your Theory of Action). The combination of expected intermediate outcomes with your contributions and assumptions provide a sufficient overview to navigate the change process towards the ultimate outcome: your Vision of Success.

This tutorial explains how to build relationships in Changeroo.

Types of Relationships

ToC elements may a) come in a specific causal sequence or b) feedback loop and may c) work together positively, or rather d) inhibit or limit each other:

1. Sequence: This is where one ToC element produces or enables another ToC element.The first element will therefore come first in time. However, it is not this time dimension that a ToC relationship describes; it is the causality between elements. Describing a ToC as a process diagram is a common mistake for building ToCs. One element may be a precondition to another element and or cause it to change. The effects that follow from an element may also be negative in nature, such as a negative side-effect of an activity.

Source: Organizational Research Services

2. Feedback loop: This is where a ToC element that in time comes after another element, feeds back to another element earlier in the change process, thereby forming a circuit or loop. In practice, this may for example happen when learning from monitoring and evaluating a change process. See our Expert Lens dedicated to feedback loops to learn more.

3. Reinforcement: This is where two or more ToC elements work together positively. One ToC element enables or reinforces the effect of another element. For example, multiple outcomes may be necessary simultaneously and or may strengthen each other to produce another ToC element.

Source: Charities Evaluation Services

4. Inhibition/reduction: This is where a ToC element potentially reduces or puts a limit on the effect of another element. For example, when competing villages are trained on certain vocational skills, they may produce better quality products which give them the opportunity of a better income. However, this relationship may be inhibited by increased competition that results from newly trained labourers in the villages.

Questions to Ask

Mapping Backwards: Pathways of Change

  • Start with your Vision of Success: “What are the necessary and sufficient preconditions for the Vision of Success to manifest itself?” What outcomes (preconditions) need to be realized to make this outcome a reality? [sequence]
  • Then, for each outcome (each answer to the first question = intermediate outcome in the Pathway of Change), ask that similar question: “What are the necessary and sufficient preconditions for this outcome to manifest itself?” [sequence]
  • Continue probing each subsequent level of outcomes until you have reached a point that provides sufficient detail about the change process. This “depth” of the process will vary across projects, but three to four “layers” are typically sufficient. [sequence]
  • Assess for each outcome what the quality of the relationship with other outcomes is:
    • Does it strengthen or reinforce any effects of other outcomes? That is, does it ‘have a positive effect’ on other outcomes? [reinforcement]
    • Does it reduce or put a limit on any effects of other outcomes/impact? [reduction]

Identifying Activities and Assumptions

  • Review the emerging pathways to identify activities and assumptionsAssumptions are vital elements of the pathways, and you incorporate them in your ToC using the Strategy Narrative ‘Validation & assumptions.
    • “What inputs or activities will we provide as a plausible explanation for the occurrence of outcome X?” [inputs and activities]
    • “What assumption are we making as a plausible explanation for the occurrence of outcome Y?” [assumptions]
  • For each outcome in your ToC you fill in the dots in the sentence: “If we do … (activity X), then … (outcome Y) results for … (beneficiary), because … (assumption Z). For whatever you’ve filled in, you repeat “If, then, because” until you arrive at your vision of success.
  • For each activity and output: What context elements influence it? [context] What outputs and outcomes/impact does it produce?
  • Review each context element to assess risks and opportunities. What effects does the context have on the change process and ultimately, the achievement of our Vision of Success?
    • Does it potentially strengthen [opportunity] or weaken [risk] any other elements of our ToC?
    • How can we benefit from these opportunities and mitigate against the risks? [activities], [assumptions]
  • Review the resulting pathways and assess activities to identify required inputs and resources. What resources and capacities are crucial to carry out these activities successfully? [inputs]
  • As a final step, review all the pathways. Check the internal logic of the change process.
    • Is it realistic that we will carry out these activities?
    • Is it likely that this outcome will result from these interventions?
    • Are our assumptions about this change process clear and explicit?
    • Have all risks and opportunities emerging from the context been integrated?


‘So That’ and ‘So What’ Chains

Pathways can also be looked at as ‘so-that chains’, as they specify what needs to happen ‘so that’ something else happens, so that again something else happens, etc. In the end, these pathways or ‘so-that chains’ lead to the vision of success.

Source: Organizational Research Services

Brainstorm about the different activities or strategies of your organisation and ask yourself ‘so that’ or ‘so what’? You can do the same for all the changes you expect to see. Keep asking why each is important to eventually identify the long-term changes in the lives of your target group as part of your ultimate vision of success.

* Organizational Research Services, pages 12-16 of Theory of Change: A Practical Tool For Action, Results and Learning.

* O. Serrat, Asian Development Bank, The Five Whys Technique.

Problem Tree Analysis

It takes a problem as point of departure and helps find solutions by looking out for the cause-effect relationships underlying that focal problem. It is best achieved in a small group context as to enable brainstorming about solutions to the cause(s) of the problem.

* Multi-Stakeholder Processes Knowledge Co-Creation Portal on problem tree analysis.

Mayne and Johnsson

Mayne and Johnsson (2015) present a generic pathway leading to behavioural change. An elaborate discussion can be found here.

Expert Lenses

More about Pathways of Change

Dynamic, Not Linear

A ToC is more complex than a simple cause-and-effect relationship. For example, activities and outcomes may be interrelated and working together or against each other toward a certain outcome or impact. So it’s also important to go beyond sequencing and identify for example reinforcing or reducing relationships and feedback loops.For more on this, see expert lenses: “complexity science and systems thinking”, “feedback loops” and “logframes”.

Relationship Build the Rationale

SROI is a well-known method for impact measurement. Also the SROI Guide stresses the importance of identifying what they call ‘chains of events’. These chains build your story. They are crucial because the systemic change you seek to achieve may not be possible in the short run: “Sometimes it takes years for outcomes to take place – for example, slowing the rate of climate change – but there may be observable changes along the way. You may have heard this described as distance travelled, intermediate outcomes, or a chain of events. It is important to establish what this chain of events is, not least because your activity may only bring about some changes in the chain.” It discusses an example of a luncheon club for elderly and disabled local residents where an unexpected outcome was that visitors of the club end up less often in the hospital. They identified the following chain of events explaining this side-effect: group activities at the luncheon club, including exercise sessions → fitter residents → residents fall down less → residents end up in hospital less. So there’s an order in outcomes as certain outcomes will come before others, and it’s important to identify these pathways to truly learn how change takes place.

Strategy Narratives Theme ‘Validation & Assumptions’

The Strategy Narratives theme of ‘Validation & assumptions’ is especially relevant for pathways and relationships. You will use this theme to test the probability of relationships through assumptions, arguments and evidence. Another strategy narrative theme where interdependencies play a crucial role is that of ‘Trade-offs’, where you’ll specify any trade-offs between and within pathways.