The Value of An Outcome-Focused Theory of Change

January 30, 2023

I consistently marvel at what can happen when people unite in a common, optimistic purpose. I am humbled by the optimism, the faith, the hope, and ultimately, the courage it takes for those we serve to invite change—especially change that will have far-reaching, long-lasting consequences for generations to come. That said, it is our responsibility as service providers to create a structure within which interventions are delivered with optimal chance for success.

I have done a good deal of research on change theories. Most of them are widely collaborative processes where stakeholders share their views on the problem, resulting in a multi-dimensional challenge with a high level of complexity. I have observed that sometimes in this process, there is a lack of clarity on outcomes.

The approach that I found most compelling comes from the Center for the Theory of Change. The Center describes an effective change theory as a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It is focused on mapping out or “filling in” what has been described as the “missing middle” between what a program or change initiative does (its activities or interventions) and how these lead to desired goals being achieved. It does this by first identifying the desired long-term goals and then works back from these to identify all the conditions that must be in place for the goals to occur. These are all mapped out in an Outcomes Framework.

I found this approach compelling because:

    • Change is explicitly tied to interventions which are explicitly tied to outcomes. Too often I find this depth of analysis missing when adopting new models of change/practice. Instead, this model first necessitates clarity within the program regarding expected outcomes. Everyone understands what they are working towards and how success will be measured.
    • It requires debate on how interventions are linked to these outcomes, forcing the collective definition of expectations and assumptions.
    • It involves drawing critical connections between interventions and long-term change. This “backward mapping” or backward design, starts with the short term and long-term goals and builds a set of interventions directly tied to achieving those goals.
    • It provides a structure that makes evaluation more focused and actionable.

      Change that results in desired outcomes is not easy. Developing a process that effectively supports the change process is equally as challenging. Yet in the absence of rigor, there is often a lot of activity and no measurable results. My goal is to ensure that the resources of our organization are invested in activities that result in measurable outcomes.

      As always, I welcome your thoughts.