Action Hypotheses

What are Action Hypotheses?

Action Hypotheses are a form of “if/then” hypothesis that we use in Emergent Learning. While scientific hypotheses propose an explanation of phenomena based on evidence from the past, action hypotheses look ahead to explain what we expect to happen as a result of future action. In both cases, the goal is to articulate something that is testable.

Action Hypotheses explore the thinking about a result we hope to accomplish (the “then”) and what we think it will take to get there (the “if”). This kind of hypothesis is so fundamental to our thinking every day that we couldn’t take action without it. It’s the smallest kernel of how we think. For example:

I step outside and take a short walk,I will be able to pay better attention in the second part of this meeting.
We make general operating support grants,Our grantees will have the flexibility to implement solutions that are most important in their contexts.
We invest in research and programming that reveal the increased disparities caused through public and private insurance payments,Policymakers will adopt payment changes that advance equity.

When and how do we use Hypotheses in Emergent Learning?

When people in an Emergent Learning culture say, “my hypothesis is…”, it is not to demonstrate authority by citing scientific language. Rather, they are communicating in shorthand that “I am making my thinking transparent to you and inviting you to inquire about it or offer an alternative.” It is intended to grow our collective thinking and agency.

EL practitioners learn to listen for hypotheses in conversations and ask questions to make sure we understand the thinking of our colleagues in a team or initiative. We use them to tease out the thinking implicit in Theories of Change. We read for them in narratives and use them to write stronger narratives. We use them to create more powerful connections between learning and evaluation by expressing hypotheses and planning how to test them out in our work over time, so that we track not just results but learn about and refine the thinking that got us there.

Hypotheses also play a starring role in Emergent Learning Tables. The whole aim is to collect all of our experience and data and make meaning of it in order to express our best possible thinking about what it will take to succeed going forward — expressed in the form of one or more Action Hypotheses.

Thinking of strategies or actions as “hypotheses” reminds us that what we thought was “true” or “right” might not be. Using this language invites us to remember that there is usually more than one path to consider and that maybe it’s OK to hold and test more than one hypothesis at a time — as long as we actually circle back and test them!