THEORY OF CHANGE
What Is It?
A theory of change is a model meant to help people and teams work through how and why they think the intended results of an initiative will happen, and to describe the causal or linked thinking and processes at work in their model.
A theory of change describes assumed, hypothesized, and/or tested impact pathways, which describe the linkages between activities, interventions, and impacts. It is explanatory and predictive in nature, and can allow for non-linearity, influence of external factors, and unintended effects characteristic of complex systems.
When Is It Used?
To explore and articulate current and possible future theories that inform your understanding of, and approaches to, innovation in your organization, team, and context.
To surface assumptions and develop a shared understanding about how you think that change happens, and use this to generate strategy development and implementation.
To provide a structured approach to strategically link purpose, theory, practice, and evaluation.
How Is It Used?
There are many possible ways to work with a theory of change, and here is a process that we have used in our social and transformative innovation work. We’ve used it at the beginning of a new project or initiative to help get a team onto the same page, to understand each other’s thinking, and to build a compelling vision and narrative about the work that we’re doing together. We’ve also used it as a reflective process with a team when they want to think about what they’ve been doing and why, and what results they are achieving when they think it’s time to expand, renew, reframe, and/or hone their thinking.
The main ingredients of a theory of change are vision, goals, a description about how you/we think that change happens, how your organization/project contributes to that change, and then outcomes, measures, and evaluation.
Spend extra time on the “how we think change happens” part. We often hold strong assumptions about this based on our lived and work experiences, the academic and professional lineages that we come from, and also at a very base level about what feels right and wrong. Take the time to surface and explore these tensions, bring in other thinking and resources that offer other perspectives about how change happens, and see if there may be some that better serve what it is that you are trying to do.
Pro-tip: Often the assumptions that we hold about how change happens are deeply entrenched in the dominant colonial, capitalist, white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, and ablist paradigms that many of us work and live within every day. Many social and transformative innovation initiatives are trying to work outside/beyond these, so make sure you take the time to generate and nest theories about how change happens that don’t inadvertently replicate exactly what you are trying to shift into your theory of change.
These ingredients are explored, discussed, debated, and reflected on, and then knit/woven together as a clear and compelling whole. This can be a relatively simple graphic, or perhaps a narrative story. It should be something that is easy for people to remember, understand, and share.
Sometimes theories of change are used quite linearly, as logic models. This approach doesn’t work in social innovation efforts working in and with great complexity. So resist that temptation, and instead focus on how to use a theory of change to aid in your strategy, team coherence, evaluation and learning processes, telling compelling stories of change and transformation.
It’s helpful to look at examples of other theories of change and find some that you like - both in terms of the content and ideas, and also how it is communicated.
Try not to belabour this process and exhaust and frustrate people along the way. It should feel creative, generative, and thoughtful. Engage conflict and tension as creative forces that will make your work stronger. Write it down/draw it, and then hold it lightly. Use it as an active hypothesis that you are regularly trying out, testing, reflecting on, and iterating.