This paper, drawing on recent research and a workshop held at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in April 2015, outlines the growing and diverse ways in which Theory of Change approaches are understood. The author argues that a Theory of Change approach demands a radical shift towards more and better learning in development thinking and practice.

The paper takes the key findings of recent research (Valters, 2014) a step further, by outlining and justifying four key principles when using a Theory of Change approach, tied into a deeper analysis of the development sector. It highlights throughout examples of the organisational use of Theories of Change, each of which attempts to go some way towards addressing the criticisms of the approach to date (James, 2011; Stein and Valters, 2012; Valters, 2014; Vogel, 2012). It also analyses possibilities for taking these principles forward in light of the ‘results agenda’.

The Theory of Change approach, with its focus on continuous critical reflection, demands a radical shift towards more and better learning in development thinking and practice. No new tool or approach can in itself address problems of institutional incentives in the sector that block such learning. However, a Theory of Change approach may be able to create a productive (albeit small) space for critical reflection – in this industry a challenging and much-needed aim.