"Results Chains" and Your Program's "Theory of Change"

Thinking critically about your program and what you want to accomplish is time well spent. Using “results chains” is an excellent way to focus your thinking in a logical manner. The results chains process also will help ensure that you do not skip important steps when providing knowledge and skills to your participants.

 “Results chains” are visual ways to depict your program’s “theory of change” -- that is, the outcomes you would like to see in your participants as a result of participating in your program. Specific outcomes are similar to well written objectives -- they identify the “desired future condition” for your participants.

Don’t be overwhelmed by these terms. Both the terms, and the processes, are useful in helping you plan effective programs by assisting you with systematically thinking about what your program seeks to accomplish.

Figure 1: Sample results chain for participant recruitment program.

Using the participant recruitment program as an example, your outcome for this strategy is that the right participants sign up for your “how-to” programs. This strategy feeds into the “How-to” program strategies. 

However, there are numerous mid-term outcomes that can be achieved in order to recruit the right participants for the “how-to” programs.

Examples of these mid-term outcomes include:

  • Recruitment program must understand a participant’s motivation so that the program can meet the participants needs and expectations;
  • Marketing efforts must match the participants' needs and expectations with program offerings;
  • Program offerings must be diverse to attract people who may not realize that obtaining their own wild food is something that they can learn to do; etc.

All of these outcomes may be required in order for a participant to recognize that a “how-to” program may fit into their lifestyle.  

In this example, your program’s “theory of change” is the combination of all of your mid-term and long-term outcomes rolled up into a sequence of learning.  A “results chain” visually shows your program’s “theory of change” and identifies skills, knowledge, or other conditions that need to be met along the way in order to achieve your desired long-term outcomes (such as having the “right participants,” and having the program meet the needs and motivations of the participants).

Results chains are best read, and/or thought of, in an “IF…THEN” manner.  In this example:

  • IF program recruiters understand participant motivations, THEN they will be able to develop programs to attract participants;
  • IF they attract participants, THEN they can offer a variety of introductory programs to increase the interest level of potential participants;
  • IF they increase the interest level of potential participants, THEN the program can offer a variety of “next steps,” including in-depth “how-to” programs.

Using this thought process, while not perfect, will encourage you to think about each of these steps as a precursor to the next step. Doing so will help you answer questions about what a participant needs or wants and how your program can meet those needs. Taking the time to answer these questions will help you to build a curriculum and identify the content of each session to ensure that participants receive the information and skills they need. 

In addition, results chains also help identify where (and what) you should measure to gage your participants' progress (i.e., evaluate your program) so that you know that they are learning the material being presented. Building in time to have the participants ask questions and review the presented material is important to ensure they are progressing as planned. 

It may be helpful to design your program in reverse. In other words, think about what you want to accomplish as your long-term outcomes first. And then, think about what will need to happen, or what a person needs to know, or be able to do, right before they reach the desired outcome. Continue your program planning by thinking about what the precursor is to the particular outcome you want to achieve at each step along the way.

For example, if you want to achieve “Z” at the end of your program, the best way to have your participants achieve this step is becoming proficient in “Y.” To achieve “Y” they need to become proficient in “X,” and so on. When the pieces are put together, teaching and learning “X” is a precursor to teaching and learning “Y,” and teaching and learning “Y” is a precursor to teaching and learning “Z.”

For additional information about creating and using results chains, see Conservation Measures Partnership’s The Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation.