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Practitioner Insights: people-centred theories of change

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Ben French, Practitioner Insights

The link between the team, its success, and how it understands and interacts with its objective, the theory of change, is critical to a programme being adaptive and impactful. This post considers how teams are formed and how the developing a theory of change can be used to build a collective vision that aligns individual and collective objectives. This process takes time, often far more time than programmes are given or take. We need to recognise this challenge and place far more emphasis on team formation.

Why does this matter?

The term ‘theory of change’ is interpreted in many ways, but it’s useful to think of it as a statement of intention: where we want to get to. Determining this answer should lead to a plan of action, and a successful project uses this to deliver the most appropriate outcome – accepting that it is likely that the theory and the plan will evolve and change over time. They respond to emerging problems and challenges.

Such agility in projects is rare, and almost always associated with a strong and dynamic team. It’s almost a truism in development to say that a team is important: we all know it is. But this knowledge can get lost amidst the analysis of a problem, the search for objectives, the unravelling of complexities, and so forth. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that it is people who deliver a project.

How a team is formed, built, and led matters, and it is hard to do well. Using the framework of Tuckman’s stages of group development – forming, storming, norming, performing – is a useful way to explore the role of a programme’s theory of change in gaining and maintaining a successful and productive team dynamic.

Forming

A theory of change is not a diktat distributed impersonally, without regard for a team’s input. Rather, it should be based on a narrative that encapsulates a shared vision, bringing together and aligning the objectives of everyone involved, into one coherent theory. If team members feel that their objectives for the project are reflected in the overall narrative, and combined with the funders’ objectives, it helps to increase buy-in and alignment. It is the role of somebody in a position of leadership to ensure that her or his team are behind a collective vision. Not only does this fairly represent the views and objectives of the team members and other stakeholders (such as funders and partners), it is more likely to lead to the successful, impactful implementation of large and complex development programmes.

Early team formation is about understanding the broad outlines of the problems and challenges faced by the programme. This means distilling these challenges down into a clear direction and developing a collective sense of purpose around these areas of focus. In short, it is about distilling complexity. Looking across the programmes I work on, where there are failures or challenges, it is often because we have rushed the forming stage. Without this solid foundation, we do not have a clear enough guiding purpose through all the complexity.

Lesson 1: focus on forming a team around a clear, simple theory of change that reflects the united vision, and becomes more complex as the team’s understanding grows.

Storming

At the second stage, where a team is beginning to learn about each other and the project, trust is paramount. Inevitably mistakes will be made. The environment will change. New information will come to light. When this happens, teams with trust and openness, that are challenging each other and that understand each other, have the greatest chance of responding positively to this new information. Through this process, the theory of change will evolve. It will remain the fulcrum for the programme, directing the efforts of the programme and pushing the team together. The challenge here is not to assume trust, but to find ways to build it – which is much easier if the theory of change is constructed to take account of team member’s objectives and thereby reflects the values and vision of the team. It goes without saying that these need to be brought into a coherent narrative with the objectives of all the other stakeholder’s, such those of funders and partners.  

Lesson 2: build trust. Build ownership. This takes time; the theory of change, a project’s objective, needs to matter to the team, and it needs to develop collectively. During this period, it should start to form into a clearer vision, direction, and focus. But more importantly, everyone in the team must be able to see their contribution in it.

Norming

In the move from leveraging the team together into ‘business as usual’, the theory of change becomes the core of the programme. As the team ‘norms’ its behaviours, the theory of change becomes part of the way of working. It becomes the pivot around which the programme flexes and adapts to changes in its environment. During this stage the team will require reminding and support to maintain its focus and direction aligned to the theory of change, but the trust and debate exists within the team.

Performing

As the team starts to perform, to deliver project outputs and objectives, constant reminders of the theory of change and the programme’s direction are not required. The theory of change becomes the narrative of the programme, enabling the programme to evolve as required but also providing consistency to guide its broader work.

Lesson 3: continually adapt the level of engagement from management and leadership. The ‘norming’ and ‘performing’ still require support and management but to a declining extent as the narrative and approach become clearer to the team. This has been set out clearly by Stephen Akroyd, talking about OPM's work on the Sub-National Governance programme in Pakistan.

Finally, repeat

The process does not stop once a team is seeing results; it is constantly being reviewed and re-evaluated as new team members join, additional information emerges, and the team develops.

It's not technical. It’s human.

This blog is based upon a presentation made at an Asia Foundation conference on Adaptive Programming and Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning. I am grateful to the Asia Foundation for organising the conference and inviting me to present.  I am also grateful for the numerous discussions from my colleagues across OPM, in particular Nils Riemenschneider, who have helped me understand this set of questions more fully.

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