STAGE 3: Test, Learn, and Iterate

Anticipate Failures

At this point you should have:


Remember that a theory of change is just that—a theory. There are many reasons why your activities may not lead to the outcome you hope for. A useful way to explore these reasons now is to perform a premortem.

In a premortem you assume that your strategy has failed and search for the possible reasons. You look ahead to identify problems you might encounter, which gives you an opportunity to correct problems before you test your theory of change in the real world.

Watch this video to learn the basics of performing a premortem, and why it’s an important tool for maximizing your chances of achieving social change.

Anticipating Failures

When you look to the future, can you see which elements of your theory of change are most likely to fail?

You’ve built a theory of change based on a series of assumptions about its causal links. Now, let’s take a closer look at four major areas where things could go wrong.





Getting Real-World Insights

Remember the importance of gathering feedback at every stage? This holds true when you’re assessing what could go wrong with your theory of change and other aspects of your strategy. Now that you know what to look for in a premortem, let’s explore how to analyze your strategy.

  1. » Problems with the causal links in your theory of change
    Revisit the information you’ve used to develop your theory of change. This includes academic research and interviews that inform your knowledge of the stakeholders and their behavior.
  2. » Problems with your implementation 
    Consult your staff and key stakeholders to identify implementation problems. Various capacity and logistical challenges can affect the quality of implementation.
  3. » External factors beyond your control
    Together with a group of staff and board members, supplemented by some leaders or other savvy people in your community, brainstorm problems that may arise from changes in government policies, the economy, the environment, and other conditions.
  4. » Unintended consequences
    Convene the same group, along with representatives of your target population and other stakeholders, to brainstorm ways in which your solution might cause unintended harms.

Jordan's Journey

Let’s check in with Jordan and see what problematic assumptions and weak spots she finds when reviewing her theory of change.

Lessons in Change

Conducting a premortem on a strategy that you’ve been working on for some time can be challenging. Identifying your own blind spots can be difficult. When you look at your strategy through the eyes of others, you may see risks and assumptions that you never noticed before. For those reasons, it’s best to involve others in a group brainstorming exercise to look for what can go wrong. 

Conducting a premortem by assuming that your strategy has failed and asking what might be wrong with it gives your staff, beneficiaries, and other key actors permission to think and say things that otherwise might seem ill-motivated or disloyal. If possible, ask someone outside your organization to moderate the discussion. 


John Lennon, music legend and Beatles founder, observed that “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Things can go as unexpectedly wrong for social enterprises as they do for individuals.

In this step, take time to look ahead before implementing your strategy and reflect on where it might fail. Be sure to:

To be a successful social entrepreneur or policymaker, you’ll need to learn to anticipate failures, and do what you can to prevent and mitigate them.