The problem with theory of change

Author: Tiago Peixoto
Commentator: Olly Benson

Posted in: Change Activation
From: Issue 14

WHAT WE THINK

How important is language when talking about what we do? Tiago Peixoto thinks it’s really important, and has a bee in his bonnet about the term “theory of change”. Whilst this term is regularly used within the change community, Tiago objects to it because it uses theory in place of hypothesis.

Tiago’s argument is that we’re rarely referring to an actual theory; which can be defined as a well-substantiated explanation based on facts that have been confirmed through repeated observation and experiment. Newton being hit on the head by an apple can be explained by the theory of gravity.

But when Newton had his encounter with the fruit, he didn’t come up with a theory, he came up with a hypothesis. It was only through testing what happens when you drop apples and other objects in all manner of different environments was that hypothesis proven and a theory developed.

So Tiago’s point is that all too often when we talk about a theory of change we’re actually talking about an idea that we have that we think will work in this situation; rather than something that we can be sure will work when all the criteria are met.

Does this matter? Tiago’s problem is that hypotheses are being given a sense of authority or validation that they do not deserve; and that as a community (in his case the development and governance arena) should be more committed to identifying what is relatively certain and what is based on a hope that this will happen.

Even if you don’t swap from ToCs to HoCs; it’s definitely food for thought.

Commentator


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