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Outcome Mapping Practitioner Guide

Developing a theory of change with Outcome Mapping

A thought piece about the use of OM for developing a theory of change. This piece argues that OM inherently helps programmes develop theories of change through a participatory and creative process that results in shared understanding and tools for learning.

Author: Simon Hearn

Published: Thursday 9 April 2015

I think you need to be more explicit here in step two.Theory of change has become a familiar term in international development, not only with regards to evaluation where it has been familiar for some time, but also with regards to strategy, research and programme development. In some cases theories of change are required by funders in addition to the usual logical frameworks. There have been a series of publications exploring this phenomenon in recent years, including reviews commissioned by Comic ReliefDFID, CARE and The Asia Foundation.

Outcome Mapping was developed before people started talking explicitly about theories of change but, since it is a process that helps teams think through how social systems work and how they can best contribute to those systems, it nonetheless is a theory of change approach.


Theory of change has three meanings in my mind:

  1. First, in its purist sense, it is a theory that describes how change happens in a given context. E.g. there are theories about what sparked the Arab Spring and how it has led to change across the MENA region, or theories about how climate change is/will affect the economy. Having an understand of the situation we are working in is crucial to building new programmes and identifying relevant theories can help this. I find this collection of 10 theories of policy change quite helpful. I think OM has limited use in this definition of theory of change as it is primarily an approach to use when there is a clear intervention to apply it to.

  2. Second it is a term loosely synonymous with other concepts like programme theory, logic model, outcome hierarchy, intentional design, logical framework. It means some way of describing the ambitions of an intervention and how what the intervention will do is expected to support those ambitions. There are countless way of doing this, many of which are described on the BetterEvaluation website. I will talk more about how I think OM is a valid member of this family further down.

  3. Thirdly, Theory of Change (capital T, capital C) it is a particular approach to the above which has been developed by AcTKnowledge and based on work by the Aspen Institute in the nineteen nineties. OM can be used with the ToC approach, as these examples from Endah Nirarita and Natalie Moxham demonstrate.


What does an OM theory of change look like?

The intentional design stage of OM is where the theory of change is developed. Each step helps to make decisions which clarify the theory of change:

  • The Vision establishes the ultimate outcome which the programme is striving for.
  • The Mission identifies the part of the vision which will be tackled, painting a picture of the contribution which the programme can realistically make, and by definition clarifying what the programme will not address.
  • The Boundary Partners are the actors who the programme identifies as being crucial to contribute to the Vision. The choice of Boundary Partner describes the programme's theory in terms of who is important, who can influence change but also who the programme has the opportunity to work with and/or influence (this is where the term boundary comes from, the boundary of the programme's sphere of influence).
  • The Outcome Challenge is a narrative description of the changes that are needed for the Boundary Partner to most effectively contribute to the vision. This often includes new roles, responsibilities, skills, relationships, actions and activities.
  • The Progress Markers are the heart of the theory of change for Outcome Mapping because they describe how the boundary partner might move from where they are right now to realisation of the Outcome Challenge. Progress Markers work as a set of progressive markers of change from simple reactive change through to complex transformative change. They do not describe a single pathway of change but rather offer markers of thing to look for that will tell you that things are changing and whether they are changing in the right direction.
  • The Strategy Map is where the programme describes what they will do to support the Boundary Partner on their journey to realisation of the their Outcome Challenge. The six types of strategy helps you consider a broad range of ideas beyond those usually considered. Taken together, the strategy maps for each boundary partner describe what some people call the theory of action - how the programme decides to act to influence change.
  • Organisational Practices complete the picture by recognising that the programme is just one actor in a broader system and has to work to remain relevant and viable; it can't just put its theory of change in a drawer for the remainder of the programme but rather it has an obligation to learn from, adapt to and share with the broader system. 


What are the strengths of an OM theory of change?

Actor focused: Because of the focus on behaviour change of boundary partners, the theory of change produced by OM is very much grounded in the realities of specific individuals, groups, organisations or communities. It is clear who is responsible for the changes that are described. 

Participatory process: Every step of OM is designed as a participatory process involving the boundary partners and other people involved around the vision. The manual provides facilitation guides for to collaboratively develop each component of the Intentional Design.

Sphere of influence: The changes described by OM are strongly focused in the sphere of influence of an intervention, that is, beyond the outputs which the team has a level of control over, but not outside the limits of their influence where it is not obvious whether the intervention has had an effect. 

Fixed and explicit perspective: Rather than trying to map a whole system and creating a 'helicopter view', OM generates a theory of change that has a clear frame of reference - the project, programme or organisation - meaning you have to put yourself in the picture when you are developing it. From this reference, the sphere of control, sphere of influence and sphere of concern can be defined. Being explicit about the frame of reference avoids the conflation of multiple perspectives and gives each perspective space to contribute. Multiple OM theories of change can be nested in order to link frameworks with different reference points.

Provides signposts for early outcomes: The progressive nature of the Progress Markers means that you know where to look for early signs that things are moving in the right direction, providing essential feedback at initial stages of an intervention.

Encourages creative thinking: Much of the time in planning with OM is spent thinking with and about the Boundary Partners; their realities and their visions. This means by the time we get to strategy planning, we have a much stronger sense of how the intervention can best support them, rather than going ahead with the same old activities. The Strategy Map tool helps us to break out of our usual boxes and think about a variety of ways we can support the Boundary Partners.

Goes beyond causal relationships: In OM the relationship between the strategies and the intended outcomes is not one-to-one or causal - there are no neat change pathways. It is expected that the relationship is many to many and often not knowable ahead of time.



The lack of explicit change pathways can make it difficult to identify testable hypotheses (e.g. testing whether and how A leads to B).

There is not a lot of detail to the theory beyond the sphere of influence, unless a nested approach is taken where boundary partners construct an OM framework of their own.

It is difficult to draw the theory of change on one single diagram - it is made up of multiple narratives and tables.


What are your experiences of theories of change with OM? 

Use the comments below to share your thoughts. Perhaps you have a view on the strengths and limitations of theories of change with OM.

Related Practitioner Guide sections:

Latin America & Carribean Sub-Saharan Africa North Africa & Middle East South Asia South East Asia & Pacific Far-East Asia Eastern Europe & CIS (ex USSR) Western Europe North America & Canada Australasia