Sustainable Tourism Projects and Theory of Change: Asking the Hard Questions

 

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June 18, 2019

project management problems solutions

Tourism can be a very powerful tool for positive economic development for local destinations and communities. But do tourism projects - investing in creating jobs, providing opportunities, and building infrastructure - really bring desired changes and lasting benefits for community members?

As part of the recent PM4SD online course, we had the opportunity to connect with Deirdre Shurland (Project Manager & Senior Specialist, UN Environment), who shared insights into effectively managing sustainable tourism projects with a clear focus on delivering sustainable results.

DEFINITIONS & EXPLANATIONS

See the following explanations on some of the key terms used in this article. 

The results of implementing a project can be considered in the following categores:

  • Outputs: the products (deliverables) produced by the project
  • Outcomes: the change allowed by the use of the project's output.
  • Impacts / Benefits: the measurable improvements derived from a successful outcome.

When describing a project, the goal and objectives of the project must be clearly defined:

  • Goal: Project goals are high-level statements addressing the overall context for what the project seeks accomplish, i.e. achieving a desired outcome at a specific end date, using a specific amount of resources.
  • Objectives: Objectives are concrete statements describing the products and deliverables that the project will deliver.

 

Achieving Sustainable Results

What does it mean to achieve sustainable results?

The reason for starting a project is because a change is needed. Regardless of the specific aim of the project - whether it be developing a new product, creating a strategy, or starting a community conservation program - it must be based on a clear definition of the change it is seeking to achieve.   

And it is this change - the positive impacts you create as a result of the project - that should define the project’s success; and not the tasks completed or the reports submitted.

So how can you, as a project manager, ensure your project successfully produces the desired results that will lead to lasting, positive impacts?

A key starting point is properly capturing the context of what the project is supposed to address, and creating a narrative for the transformation to be achieved as a result.

And for this, a helpful tool for project managers is the Theory of Change approach. 

Understanding the Context

The Theory of Change tool is used to understand the process of change by outlining the causal pathways from the problem statement, to the project’s outputs, and to the long term changes that deliver (or lead to) the desired change.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) has adopted this tool for all its projects, and uses, as the starting point of analyzing the context of each project and identifying the desired change to be achieved through the project, the following methods:

  • Problem tree analysis
  • Objective tree analysis

Both of these methods use visual representation - in a tree-like diagram - of the problem / objective to be analyzed, including the cause-effect relationships between various topics being analyzed.

Problem tree analysis (which may also be referred to as “situational analysis” in some organizations) start with the main problem or issue, placed at the center of the diagram (the “trunk” of the tree), which is then broken down into causes (the “roots”) and the effects and consequences (the “branches”) of the problem.

The problem analysis as the starting point of designing and defining any project must be conducted with a variety of stakeholders involved, reflecting the different voices of those who are affected by the problem and who have an interest in solving the problem.

problem tree analysis example
Problem Tree example by UN Environment (taken from the presentation by Deirdre Shurland, delivered as part of the PM4SD Practitioner online course in June 2019) / Original source: UN Environment Project Management Manual

The key to conducting the problem analysis in a meaningful way is to recognize the multi-dimensional nature of the problem, and understand its root causes and impacts based on the different perspectives represented by stakeholders.

The next level of analysis turns the identified core problems into objectives, using the "objective tree" approach. The objective tree is used to analyze the necessary solution to the problem, and the means / objectives to arriving at the solution (the “roots” of the objective tree) and the ends / outcomes to be achieved as a result (the “branches”).

objective tree analysis example
Objective Tree example by UN Environment (taken from the presentation by Deirdre Shurland, delivered as part of the PM4SD Practitioner online course in June 2019)/ Original source: UN Environment Project Management Manual

Defining and understanding the context of your project this way will help you identify the right approach to solving that problem, and importantly, the WHY of your project, focused on the change it seeks to bring.

 

Establishing a Narrative for Change

Once you’ve broken down the problem and clarified what’s needed to create the solution, you can apply the "ends" of the causal analysis (i.e. the “branches” of the objective tree) to develop the project's vision statement, based on the desired outcomes to be achieved from implementing the actions. A Theory of Change emerges in the narrative and is now the basis for designing and defining your project.

The process of identifying and describing your Theory of Change is a brainstorming activity that requires multiple stakeholders if the Theory is to be correctly developed and explained.

Concretely, the Theory of Change approach involves these six steps:

1. Identifying long-term goals - the change you seek to achieve
2. Backwards mapping and connecting the preconditions or requirements necessary to achieve that goal.
3. Identifying your basic assumptions about the context.
4. Identifying the interventions you will perform to create your desired change.
5. Developing indicators to measure your outcomes to assess the performance of your initiative.
6. Writing a narrative to explain the logic of your initiative.

(Source: The Center for Theory of Change)

In this process, in addition to articulating the flow of project activities (“interventions”), outputs, and how those outputs lead to benefits and changes, it’s critical to identify and address the key assumptions that underpin each step of the Theory of Change chart.

The “assumptions” in this context refer to the conditions and processes that must be in place to support the specific actions of the project, and to help ensure those actions lead to the desired result or outcome.

"The Theory of Change tool not only helps to clearly articulate and connect your work to your bigger goal, it also allows you to spot potential risks in your plan by sharing the underlying assumptions in each step."


Theory of Change Example - DYI - Development Impact by You

Describing the Theory of Change this way helps you articulate a narrative of why the project is going to lead to a desired change, bringing benefits that aren't already in existence and that are going to improve the lives of those affected by the problem.

 

Sounds Good … But Is It Worth It?

These tools in theory may all sound great, but in practice, is it easy to implement the Theory of Change approach? It is worth the time and effort involved in organizing and coordinating brainstorming sessions and stakeholder meetings?  

It may be tempting to think you could simply the process and just define the objectives of your project on your own. This would, however, not only make it unlikely that your project will create real lasting change, but it may also end up costing you more down the line.

Your project success depends on the skills, resources, time and knowledge that your project team members and stakeholders are able to contribute. Without clearly defining the specific objective that will address a core problem - and doing so through a multi-stakeholder process - you run the risk of disengaging the very people you need for your project.

Deirdre Shurland of the UN Environment has put it this way: "If, as a project manager or as a contributor to a project, you’re not clear as to why you’re doing what you’re doing, the project stakeholders will not have the motivation to commit to the process, or to engage with the project.”
 
What do YOU think? Have you worked with the Theory of Change framework for your own tourism projects, and if s, how has it supported your work? Or, if you have not yet employed this approach, how do you think these tools might help improve your future projects and initiatives in sustainable tourism?

 


Resources

ODI.org - Planning tools: Problem Tree Analysis
Managing for Sustainable Development Impact - Objective tree
The Center for Theory of Change - How Does Theory of Change Work?
DYI (Development Impact by You) - Theory of Change

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