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Abt’s Program Theory Playbook: Six Visual Strategies That Will Change Your Evaluation Game

March 9, 2023

If you’re trying to articulate how a program works, a picture is worth a thousand words. That’s why we’ve developed a playbook that illustrates six different types of program theories: to help program developers and evaluators guide and share their work (with pictures doing the heavy lifting). Program theories are visuals that describe how a program is intended to bring about a desired outcome. For program developers, program theories can help staff gain a shared understanding of the program and what they need to do to make an impact. For evaluators, program theories can help organize an evaluation design by providing a framework for understanding what to measure and how different parts of a program are hypothesized to affect outcomes.

Our primary motivation in developing this playbook is to spark creativity in the articulation of a program’s activities and outcomes, so think of this as a starting point—we encourage you to play around with the different templates to develop program theories that best meet your needs. It’s a playbook, play around! The playbook illustrates six different program theories:

  • A Logic Model lists program inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes. This is the most common type of program theory. It can provide a simple and accessible program overview—which is great for communication purposes.
  • Like a logic model, a Logframe lists program activities, outputs, and outcomes—but it also lays out underlying risks and measurable indicators. It provides an accessible, simple program overview that supports program planning, management, and monitoring.
  • A Theory of Change describes how specific program inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes are assumed to be connected. Although some evaluators talk of theories of change and logic models interchangeably, a theory of change provides a more detailed description of how a program is intended to bring about the desired outcomes.
  • A Context-Mechanism-Outcome (CMO) Configuration describes how specific mechanisms are assumed to generate outcomes in a particular context. It provides a detailed description of the underlying processes, explaining why and in what context the program is intended to work.
  • A Causal Loop Diagram describes how program activities and outcomes are assumed to be connected, including positive and negative connections, feedback loops, and emergent and delayed outcomes. It provides a detailed and nuanced description of the dynamic causal logic underlying programs.
  • Finally, a Stock and Flow Diagram describes program dynamics in terms of stocks (program outcomes) and flows (program activities). It provides insights into how a program behaves under various conditions.

These different types of program theories are not mutually exclusive. Program developers and evaluators can also create nested or hybrid models that combine different types of program theories. Combining different program theories allows you to examine and understand programs in different—but complementary—ways. For example, integrating causal loop diagraming in a theory of change can help drill down how certain activities within the theory of change can affect outcomes. Using nested or hybrid models allows you to create your own playbook.

Please let us know what you think, and good luck with whatever play you decide to run!

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