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 can 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 improve “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.