Variables and targets: An easy trick for writing the names of your Theory of Change or Logframe items which helps to focus on the actual Variables

(This was also published at LinkedIn Pulse.)

How do you write the names of the items in your Logframes and Theories of Change?

Looking around, I see a really mixed bag:

Improved teaching quality

Teaching quality

Teaching quality 20% better than last year

… etc.

And sometimes we see some of the relevant information expressed as targets:

Teaching quality … target = score at least 4 out of 5 on assessment test

Teaching quality … target = improvement of at least 1 on assessment test (1-5)

Now one key thing that’s wrong with all these formulations is that it’s hard to see what is a) the Variable - the thing where we want to make a difference - and b) the size/amount of that difference.

I’ve got a simple suggestion to tidy this up.

First, I need to explain a key idea. In some of my other posts I’ve argued that the real currency of monitoring and evaluation is the Difference. A Difference (spelt with a capital D) is like a kind of subtraction between what we actually get (or expect to get) and what would have happened otherwise, for example without some particular intervention. You can call this “what would have happened otherwise” the Counterfactual if you wish.

I suggest that any information about the difference we make or want to make (on a particular Variable) with our intervention is written between a pair of asterisks, and all the text outside the asterisks is understood as simply the name of the Variable itself. When I say “Variable”, I don’t care if this is a numerical Variable or some less precisely expressed concept - as long as it’s something which could be different.

So we could express the Variable above like this:

Teaching quality improves

… or, if we want more detail:

Teaching quality improves by 20%

When we intervene by giving a local teacher training NGO 1000 EUR, we make a Difference to its financial resources:

NGO financial resources increased by 1000 EUR

… and we hope that this (amongst other things) will lead to, say, two extra teacher training weekends.

We can even link up three Variables like this and say:

NGO financial resources increased by 1000 EUR leads to 2 extra teacher training weekends, which leads to an increase of 20% teaching quality.

In some cases, we even have some measure of both the expected result and what would have happened otherwise. We can express this as kind of subtraction but using a double subtraction sign, like this:

Teaching quality: 4–3 (on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being best)

… which says that we expect teaching quality to get a 4 (for example, due to our intervention) rather than a 3. But in other cases we might not have so much detail, so we can just express the Difference e.g. as “significantly improved” rather than using this sign.

The nice thing about this double-asterisk convention is that it is really low-tech, and you can apply to Logframes or Theories of Change or your latest project management system. They can help us both name the Variables correctly and also highlight the Differences we expect to make, as well as separating the one from the other.

It’s true that some stricter formats for project management and monitoring might already insist on separating Variable names from targets. But that can mean that you end up with rather uninspiring Variable names like just “Teaching quality”, and you have to dig into the details to find that this is something that we want to increase.

If you’re already excited about this asterisks idea and want to try it out, you might like to know that my website theorymaker.info for drawing Theories of Change already understands the convention. At theorymaker.info, you type your Variables into a text window and get a live diagram as output.

So without using the convention, you might get a diagram like this, in which purely the names of the Variables are given:

Teaching quality



 Teaching skills



  Teacher training weekends



   NGO financial resources



wrap=5

… but if you try typing the asterisks, you will get this beautiful diagram:

*Improved* teaching quality

 *Improved* teaching skills

  *12--10* teacher training weekends

   *1000 EUR extra* NGO financial resources

wrap=5

A reminder: that *12--10* means there should be 12 weekends rather than just the 10 which would have happened anyway.