Most Significant Change

What is the Most Significant Change (MSC) technique?

The Most Significant Technique (MSC) technique was developed in 1994 by Rick Davies. Engaged in a project involving 16,500 participants in Bangladesh, he realised that there was no prospect of agreeing on specific indicators. He decided instead to invite participants to tell their stories of any significant change they had witnessed as a result of the project.

They were also asked to explain why those stories were significant. Davies then asked groups of people at different levels of the project’s hierarchy to select the story they found most significant and explain why they made that choice. This ensured participation by beneficiaries and stakeholders who were forced to think about the changes the project might be making.

So, the Most Significant Technique sometimes called the ‘story approach’ or ‘Monitoring-without-indicators’ (ODI, 2009), is a participatory method which involves generating and analysing personal accounts of change and deciding which of these accounts is the most significant – and why (Better Evaluation).

MSC works without predefined indicators, in which community members and field staff collect, discuss and analyse changes. It is good at capturing unforeseen changes and building up a more complete picture of change overall.

MSC: Advantages and Disadvantages

MSC is helpful in explaining HOW change comes about (processes and causal mechanisms) and WHEN (in what situations and contexts). A useful complement to theory of change
MSC is limited in that it does not really work on its own
It provides some information about impact and unintended impact but is primarily about clarifying the values held by different stakeholders. 
According to Insightshare: Hearing one or two stories from the field could be called anecdotal, but when 50 or 300 stories or more are collected and analysed, meaningful patterns emerge
By itself it is not sufficient for impact evaluation as it does not provide information about the usual experience but about the extremes
MSC is not just about collecting and reporting stories but about learning from these stories/ learning about the similarities and differences in what different groups and individuals value
A danger that stakeholders/ beneficiaries engage in ‘happy talk’, accentuating the positive and ignoring the negative
Forces beneficiaries and stakeholders to think about the changes the project might be making and about  “what success looks like”A danger that stories are not hijacked for other purposes
MSC allows you to be innovative in terms of your approach
Requires good facilitation skills
Its simple, narrow focus gets round the need for more resource-intensive monitoring and brings out the often unheard voices and personal stories of individualsIt is not particularly scientific and based upon stories and perceptions that are hard to verify empirically

Sources: Better Evaluation, ODI

How to use the MSC Technique   

Different guides give different advice here: Davies, ODI, Better Evaluation and Insightshare all provide excellent advice on this technique.

This advice has much in common, even if it involves quite a range of steps. Insightshare, with its focus on MSC plus participatory video, suggest 26 steps, while Better Evaluation highlight three broad very phases, namely:

  1. Decide on the types of stories that should be collected (stories about what – for example, about practice change or health outcomes or empowerment)
  2. Collect the stories and determine which stories are the most significant
  3. Share the stories and hold a discussion with stakeholders and contributors so that people learn what is valued

MSC and the 1-2-3 Method

Given that this is an introductory guide, the MSC has been boiled down here to five key stages. These may or may not include the use of participative video.

  1. Define the precise question to be asked and the purpose of the MSC technique:
    • to assess the overall impact of the project/ programme
    • to learn from beneficiaries and understand how it has affected people’s lives
    • to get beneficiaries thinking about impact
    • to record responses for reporting purposes
    • to share learning and outcomes with stakeholders
  2. Identify beneficiaries who will participate and, if appropriate, ask them for informed consent (see ethical guidelines). Note that significant change stories are generally only collected from those most directly involved, such as participants and field staff.
  3. Ask individual participants what the MSC has been for them as a result of the project/ programme. You may ask a question such as: ‘Looking back over the last month, what do you think was the most significant change in [particular domain of change]?’
  4. You may decide to film or audio-record this account. Where large groups are involved, participants might take turns telling their stories and might be asked to select the most significant story of change. Film or audio-record the selected story.
  5. Seek the consent of individuals whose stories have been selected to be viewed and discussed by the group or by other groups. Where large numbers of participants are involved, a range of most significant stories can be reviewed by a selection panel to produce the most MSC. The question the panel may ask itself is: ‘From among all these significant changes, what do you think was the most significant change of all?’
  6. Now it is time for the really hard part. Think about how you can use this data.

What to extract from your MSC approach?

You should extract testimonials of lived experiences, although, sometimes you need to anonymise these. Sometimes this may involve not mentioning names or even blurring out faces. Remember that your top priority must always be to do no harm.

Also extract evidence in support of your logframe, your ToC or the claims in your six-monthly/ annual/ evaluation reports. To illustrate:

  • If you are reporting back to a funder, you will want to know how these stories can feed into your reporting requirements. The stories may mention how a child’s life has been saved by early treatment of malaria, or how a mother has been able to work in town during the day thanks to the increased capacity of a local school (via the provision of a new classroom or additional desks)
  • Some of these stories will provide data on outputs (a widow now produces two times the number of sanitary towels in any given week), outcomes (the same women can now feed her five children) and goals (the problem of malnutrition in villages in a particular region is being tackled (even if it is hard to extrapolate too much from individual cases)
  • When you have collected a number of stories and either filmed, audio-recorded or transcribed them, you can read them and look for patterns. This can be done intuitively or you can use coding. In the latter case, you look for words or ideas that keep coming up and group them in a table under activities, outputs, outcomes or goals. Advice on how to do coding is given in an extremely helpful website developed by Europlanet
  • If it is your first experience of M&E then it may be enough to limit yourself to MSC (or surveys/ interviews) as a way of testing your Theory of Change.
  • If, however, you are ready to go further then you could move straight to step 3 and the various investigative techniques recommended at this stage.
Davies, R. and J. Dart (2005)The ‘Most Significant Change’ (MSC) Technique – A Guide to Its Use – Guidelines from the Rick Davies and Jessica Dart who developed the concept of Most Significant Change Other useful guides have been prepared by the ODI and by Insightshare.

In the latter case, the approach combines MSC with participatory video techniques

Hovland, I. (2005) Successful Communication: A Toolkit for Researchers and Civil Society Organisations, ODI Working Paper 227, London: ODI.

See this overview from which outlines the process and findings of an NGO self-evaluation process which used Most Significant Change to evaluate the organisational development services offered by the group.

Where to next?

Click here to return to the top of the page and here to return to Theory-Based Evaluation (Step 2)