3. Theory 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." 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
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, yet it should be more than this.
It 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.
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.
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 it is now no longer a linear process, it is one that instead is based
around 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