Theories of Change

Systems change is about changing complex organizations, it is thus before anything what we would call a "theory of change" - it will give us a set of ideas and methods about how to do change in complex environments. People have been thinking about how to do change within organizations long before we came up with the idea of systems change, so a good place to start is by first understanding a little about theories of change in general so that we can better position systems change in its broader family and see how and why it is unique.

The Center for Theory of change tells us that a "Theory of Change is essentially a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why the desired change is expected to happen in a particular context."[1] Quite simply theories of change are the essential plan as to how we are going to get from where we are to where we want to be.

NPC in their paper entitled Creating your Theory of Change break this down a bit farther noting "a theory of change is a scheme to help us describe the need you are trying to address, the changes you want to make (your outcomes), and what you plan to do (your activities)."[2]

A theory of change is always present within a planned course of action, whether it is explicitly acknowledged or not. What we wish to do here is make as much explicit as possible so that we can be clear about it and know the assumptions involved. This gives us the capacity to question whether those are valid assumptions and whether the whole thing makes sense or where the issues might lie.

Often organizations wish to see a change, they will have an idea about what they would like to see as the outcome, their view of the world is based upon some assumptions, and they take some actions but there is little coherent connection between them, because they are not really aware of them as a whole.

As such a theory of change is a powerful tool that helps organizations articulate the connection between their actions and their mission. It aims to give an outline of both the assumptions involved in supporting the change process and the actions that will lead to the desired outcome. The theory of change defines long-term goals and then maps backward to identify necessary preconditions. Through theories of change actions and the achievement of the long-term goals can be better understood, connected and articulated.

A theory of change is often illustrated by a diagram or chart which should help us to consider and communicate the assumptions and enablers that surround our initiatives and explain why we think our activities will lead to desirable outcomes.[3]

Simple and Complex

Theory of Change developed from the field of program evaluation in the 1990s as a new way of analyzing the theories motivating programs and initiatives working for social change.[3] Since then the use of the Theory of Change in planning and evaluation has increased hugely among, NGOs, philanthropies, government agencies, etc. Change processes are now no longer seen as linear, but as having many feedback loops that need to be understood, with links to complexity and systems thinking now forming.

Theories of change can be simple and linear in their assumptions taking the form of logic models and log frames or even gantry charts, involving linear causal relationships, or if-then relationships. However, systems change is based upon the assumption that the system we are dealing with is not amenable to this kind of linear process of change but is a search for a different form of change that would be relevant for more complex nonlinear change processes. With nonlinear processes of change, one thing does not lead sequentially to another, but instead, outcomes emerge out of the underlying structure of the system, the way the parts are interrelated.

Theories of change make the connection between what we are doing and the changes we want to see, this remains the same even when dealing with complex systems. So a theory of change still applies, we are still acting strategically to change a system and we need to be aware of the assumptions we are making, where we want to go to and our general approach. The intervention however is now no longer a linear process, it is one that instead is based around the nonlinear process of emergence.

Although change in a complex organization is nonlinear we still need some theoretical grounding to structure our thinking as to how change happens and this is what we will look at in the coming three modules as we look at the adaptive cycle, the two-loop model and transition theories.

1. What is Theory of Change? | Theory of Change Community (2020). Available at: (Accessed: 25 August 2020).

2. (2020) Available at: (Accessed: 25 August 2020).

3. (2020) Available at: (Accessed: 25 August 2020).

Systems Innovation

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