Visual outcomes models are usually a powerful way of identifying, analyzing and communicating outcomes (‘a picture is worth a thousand words’) principle

Academic references to outcomes theory


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The principle

Visual outcomes models - showing high-level outcomes and the steps leading to them - are usually a powerful way of identifying, analyzing and communicating outcomes. They are used as a conceptul tool in outcomes theory - to analyze and quickly communicate key technical concepts. They are also used in practice to make project, program, policy or other outcomes work faster and more transparent. 


The problem

Every project, program, policy or other outcomes system (any system for identifying, prioritizing, intervening with, measuring, attributing, and contracting for outcomes) needs a way of representing its outcomes. This is needed in order to analyze, discuss and communicate its outcomes and the steps it is believe will lead to them being achieved. 

Outcomes can be represented as: text-based narrative; tables; mathematical models; and/or visual models. Each different form has pros and cons and can potentially add value in outcomes work. For effective theoretical and practical outcomes work, it’s essential to have a practical and effective way of clearly, concisely identifying, discussing and communicating outcomes and not all forms of presenting outcomes deliver this in the same way.


The solution

Visual outcomes models are usually a powerful way, in the first instance, of identifying and discussing outcomes and the steps leading to them. In outcomes theory, the concept of a visual outcomes models provides a short-hand way of discussing, and simplifying, many outcomes theory concepts. For instance, in conceptual discussions, talking about high versus low-level boxes within a visual outcomes model is an elegant way of avoiding the termological confusion arising from the use of words such as: goals, results, achievements, outcomes, impact, final outcomes, intermediate outcomes, etc. 

In both theory and practice, visual outcomes models have a number of strong points. First, they provide a more transparent, quickly accessible, and concise representation compared to only using text-based narrative. Second, compared to the use of tables, they allow a more fluid approach to representing causality (tables tend to inadvertently siloize stategies under single outcomes). Third, compared to mathematical models, they allow for the representation of outcomes, steps and the relationship between them that are currently not able to be quantified. Of course, this does not mean that there is no place for other ways of representing outcomes and steps when doing outcomes work. For instance, some narrative discussion, even if only brief, is generally required at some stage in working with, and reporting on outcomes. Tabular presentations are sometimes useful and, in addition, where variables can be quantified, mathematical models are potentially very powerful. 

In additon to their theoretical use, in practice, visual outcomes models are used for: strategic planning; prioritisation; performance monitoring and management; assessing impact; risk management and outcomes-based contracting.

Outcomes models go by names such as: ends-means diagrams; causal models; results chains; program theories; theories of change; intervention logics; and program logics. Outcomes models used in outcomes theory are built according to a particular set of rules which ensure they are fit-for-purpose for the various ways they’re used.