What is negative program theory and why should you use it?

Most people developing their program logics and program theory focus almost exclusively on how the targeted outcomes can be achieved. If only the intended outcomes are focused on, you can accidentally miss huge risks and unintended consequences. Overlooking these could be the undoing of your program: at best attracting negative media attention, at worst doing real harm.

Negative program theory is an approach that can be applied to achieve the following benefits:

  • identify risks and unintended consequences so they can be effectively monitored and managed
  • increase the robustness of your program logic by exploring alternative theories of change
  • refine your program delivery model to improve the achievement of outcomes.

Use the same overarching approach as you normally would to develop your program logic, but instead of focussing on the targeted positive outcomes explore what else might happen.

Applying divergent thinking exercises as a group can be useful practice as part of exploring negative program theories. This might include:

  • brainstorming to generate ideas
  • using Edward De Bono’s six thinking hats
  • using the improv “yes, and” instead of “no, but”
  • asking open rather than closed questions
  • suspending judgement: there are no bad ideas, capture everything and refine it later.

For more detail on developing ‘program logic’ refer to Chapter 8 of our DIY Program Evaluation Kit.

Haven’t got access to our DIY Evaluation Kit? You can download it, for free, below.

DIY Program Evaluation Kit

DIY Program Evaluation Kit

In "Plain English"

Not sure how to monitor your program’s performance?

Don’t know where to start to judge whether your program is on track?

A monitoring and evaluation framework is an integral part of understanding how well your program is performing.

It helps you set out and record the activities you need to complete to assess your program’s performance over time to assess whether your program is on the right track.

We created this M&E framework guide to help you build your own. The guide gives you the right structure and useful explanation of what is typically required in each section

Download our comprehensive guide to build an M&E framework for your own program today.