Theorymaker - a language for Theories of change.

Steve Powell

Nov 11 2017 - | - Press your space bar to continue

These slides …

  • suggest a visual language for Theories of Change (because there isn’t one yet)
  • are relatively independent of one another
  • are available at
  • explain (in Part 2) how not to talk nonsense with Theories of Change
  • do not deal with the practical or political aspects (who creates them, how and why)
  • include a small “Clone” link above each diagram: edit a version of the same diagram at

If this is too confusing, read an introduction instead.

If you want more

Part 1: Building Theories of Change

with the “Theorymaker” visual language

Theorymaker provides:

  • a standard toolbox of graphical elements (from simple to “wicked”) for building many different kinds of Theories of Change
  • words (in capitals) like “Variable”, “Rule” etc to talk about the parts of a Theory of Change
    • including a definition of “Theory of Change”
  • theory-based suggestions for how to use Theories of Change in evaluations

Who’s suspicious of Theories of Change?

  • Unrealistic, too optimistic?
  • Not flexible enough, don’t reflect how even the big features of plans change
  • Don’t reflect the details of hands-on management and how the little features change
  • Don’t reflect how new problems (and responses) can emerge
  • Too worried about measuring things in numbers
  • Don’t account for complexity of different stakeholders with different visions
  • “They assume everything is linear”

A good Theory of Change can accommodate all these criticisms! But do all partners want a more flexible (and complicated?) ToC?

What is a Theory of Change?

In the Theorymaker language, a ToC = someone’s Theory about how to get something they want by influencing something they can control.

A school principal has this Theory …

So this is a Theory of Change:

  1. it’s a Theory
  2. at least one Variable is valuable
  3. at least one Variable is controllable.

Theorymaker symbols:

  • ► = we can control this
  • ♥ or ☺ = we value this

(Just three Variables in this example. Many other formats possible.)

So, what’s a Theory?

… either a “simple Theory”:

like this, which shows how one or more “influencing Variables” influence one “consequence Variable” …

… or a composite Theory: two or more simple Theories “snapped together”.

Here, we added another simple Theory which explains how Output 1 influences Outcome X:

So, what are simple Theories?

… nuggets of practical information

  • more or less accurate
  • rules of thumb
  • help us to understand how the world works
  • format: manipulating these Variables will affect that Variable
  • more or less general or specific
  • it’s our job to provide Theories with the best evidence!
  • in any give situation, many different, overlapping Theories can be applied