A theory of change approach to help tackle the world’s greatest challenges

The process to develop theories of change and impact pathways for each region involved intense workshops. Participants in the East Africa workshop, held 17-19 Nov. 2014, completed small group and larger group exercises. Photo: T. Muchaba (CCAFS)
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New article explores the CCAFS experience with a theory of change approach for outcome-based agricultural research for development

A few years ago, CCAFS adopted a theory of change approach to its agricultural research for development (R4D) work. The theory of change approach has been gaining popularity over the past decade or so in development circles as a way to be more reflective of the processes through which changes take place. (For a fuller understanding of the approach, check out the review commissioned by DFID, this review, or some of the resources from this reading list.)

CCAFS made the shift to using a theory of change approach with the understanding that tackling the great challenge of feeding a rapidly growing population with finite resources in the face of a changing and variable climate will require the agricultural R4D community to become much more effective and efficient.

A recently published paper in the Agricultural Systems journal lays out the CCAFS experience in adopting the theory of change approach to help reach its outcome-oriented goals. The paper, 'Responding to global change: A theory of change approach to making agricultural research for development outcome-based', describes the CCAFS experience with taking on a process and approach to help scientists shift from hoping for a miracle to being more explicit about the steps need to effect change and achieve outcomes based on research and scientific findings.

The CCAFS commitment to doing research differently

Research is often curiosity-driven, even in development research circles, and the ultimate indicators of success centre around peer-reviewed publications in high-profile academic journals. In today’s highly competitive research environment another crucial success factor relates to fundraising: the ability to write and win competitive research proposals. None of these motivations for research is guaranteed to deliver development outcomes, however. The agricultural R4D community needs to span a broad spectrum of activities (see figure 1), and the theory of change approach offers a systematic way to think about moving from research to outcomes.

Figure 1. Logical causal chain from research inputs to impact, and the domains of research, development and R4D.

From its inception, CCAFS was interested in doing research differently – with visions of possible development outcomes and elements of results-based management driving the research agenda and process.

Deep engagement with stakeholders to get science-based solutions to practical problems is fundamental to the CCAFS approach. We subscribe to the “Three-Thirds Principle”: one-third of effort engaging with partners to decide what needs to be done and how; one-third on doing the actual research, often also in partnership; and one-third on sharing results in appropriate formats and strengthening capacity of next users to utilize the research to achieve outcomes and impact.

We use several different practices to ensure that the research has a focus on results, and this includes developing theories of change with research partners and users of research, to frame research as part of a wider process of change and to test hypotheses about how this change happens.

Participants at an outcome mapping workshop in Kisumu, Kenya

​Participants at an outcome mapping workshop in Kisumu, Kenya in August 2013. Working with partners on the ground is a key part of achieving outcomes. Photo: P. Kimeli (CCAFS)

It wasn’t easy at first

CCAFS waded into the theory of change process by asking a small subset of projects to develop theories of change for their work. One of the first lessons that became apparent was that using such a new approach within agricultural R4D requires strengthening scientists’ capacities to do research differently, work across disciplines, and work with non-research partners for impact. Adaptive management, regular communications between programs and projects, and facilitated learning within and between projects helped ease the transition. Several learning briefs were developed to document the lessons learned.

Table 1. Learning briefs documenting lessons from the CCAFS theory of change approach




Lessons in theory of change: CCAFS Southeast Asia Research for Development Workshop. CCSL Learning Brief 8.


Lessons in theory of change: monitoring, learning and evaluating Knowledge to Action. CCSL Learning Brief 9.


Lessons in Theory of Change from the Introductory Training on Theories of Change, Impact Pathways and Monitoring & Evaluation. CCSL Learning Brief 10.


Lessons in Theory of Change from a Series of Regional Planning Workshops. Learning Brief 11.


Lessons and Insights from CCAFS Results-Based Management Trial. Learning Brief 12.


Lessons in Theory of Change: Gender and Inclusion. Learning Brief 14.


CCAFS reporting and evaluation in a results-based management framework. Learning Brief 15.


Building an online platform in support of outcome-focused results-based program management. Learning Brief 16.

Continuing challenges

The bottom line is that shifts in R4D modes of operation, including the new emphasis on theories of change, are having an enormous impact on the way in which research is conceived, planned, implemented and evaluated. The theory of change approach is not a panacea, and there are considerable challenges to be addressed. First, research is not the same as engineering, in which we know what the outcome will be – it’s inherently a risky business. Second, CGIAR is an R4D organisation, not a development organisation, and figuring out how to balance the need to do great science with the need for impact is still an issue. We need to avoid the outcome-based focus being to the detriment of the science. The third challenge is generating evidence of whether and how the theory of change approach leads to better and more effective gains in R4D than other approaches. But it’s a hugely exciting time to be working in R4D, and the theory of change approach is fostering massive change. It seems to us that much of this change is for the better.

Download the paper: Responding to global change: A theory of change approach to making agricultural research for development outcome-based