Using theories of change for systemic impact

In the field of change there are two approaches that are helping change makers, across charities, funders, business and policy makers help them become more effective and impactful — systems change and theories of change (ToC).

Systems change is both the outcome of the emergence of a new pattern of organising or system structure, and is often becoming the impact that we seek. It can also be the term used for the systemic processes we as change makers might use in seeking this impact.

A theory of change shows a [project’s] path from needs to activities to outcomes to impact. It describes the change you want to make and the steps involved in making that change happen. Theories of change also depict the assumptions that lie behind your reasoning, and where possible, these assumptions are backed up by evidence.” (Angela Kail & Tris Lumley, New Philanthropy Capital)

If these two approaches both deal with impact and the processes for achieving it then there should be alignment. But how are these two mutually supportive of each other or at odds?

At Forum for the Future, we have been seeking to address this question in practice by creating theories of change as we catalyse systems change to tackle complex sustainability challenges for example in projects such as Tea 2030, Cotton 2040 or the Protein Challenge 2040, and whilst catalysing whole system transitions such as transforming our energy grid or tackling marine plastics. We have also supported organisations and initiatives apply a theory of change to their systems change endeavours — for example Marine CoLaboration with Caluste Gulbenkian Foundation, Unilever improving livelihoods and creating more opportunities for women and as we build the capacity of change agents at the School of Systems Change.

Through this experience we have had some insights into what we might need to watch out for when using theory of change as a tool for systems change and systemic impact.

Insight 1: Apply a systemic mind-set, thus challenging your assumptions about how change happens

“The world is a complex, interconnected finite, ecological-social-psychological-economic system. We treat it as if it were not, as it were divisible, separable simple and infinite. Our persistent, intractable, global problems arise directly from this mismatch” Meadows 2010

As the saying goes all models are wrong but some are useful. The root cause of many complex challenges is that we have applied a linear and mechanical way of looking at the world. This is at odds to the way that world works. It is therefore the mind-set or worldview we bring to any model, including a theory of change that determines if it aligns with taking a systemic approach. We need to challenge our assumptions about how change happens and in that challenge the linear route to causality that can often be found in the application of ToC.

The next two insights says what this might mean in practice.

Insight 2: Define impact and interventions through diagnosing the complexity of the challenge

A systemic diagnosis starts with the premise that we need to understand the nature of the challenge we are attempting to address, using a systems practice. A diagnosis helps define the scope or boundaries of the problem we are looking of the problem and understand the context in which we are attempting to operate, for example using futures inquiries and stakeholder mapping. It can also help us understand the multiple and root causes, interconnections. Both often reframing the impact we think we want to create. Finally it should also look at the dynamics of how people and society are changing over time, at multiple levels, testing what the response might be and informing and prioritising best places to act, possible leverage points and what types of approaches that might work in these contexts.

Key elements of a theory of change:

  • The problem and its systemic nature (conditions outside of the project)
  • The goals and impact we want to see in the world
  • The activities/ interventions you undertake (and how they interrelate to create system change)
  • The assumptions — the rationale for why you are creating change through these interventions
  • The risks and consequences of these interventions

As such we use this diagnosis of systemic challenges as the basis for any theory of change — both informing the approach to change we take — where to intervene and leverage change in the system and the appropriate approach to take.

Insight 3: Constantly adapt your approach as you gain feedback from your interventions

“ToC’s are an on-going process of reflection to explore change and how it happens — and what that means for the part we play.” Comic Relief

A key systemic principle is that things are always constantly changing and in dynamic flux. You cannot truly know what might work in any context until you have prodded and poked the system to see how it might response. Therefore a theory of change needs to be a living conversation, that is testing our assumptions about how change happens and requires an adaptive learning approach as you gain feedback from the work that you are undertaking. Sometimes we fail to build the feedback loops into the different stages, not allocating time to revisit and improve. This is why action research — the process of planning, acting and reflecting — is an appropriate framing for undertaking systems change and is the basis for how we ourselves and in supporting others navigate the complexity of the challenges towards greater impact. This shift monitoring and evaluation towards a process of constant learning.

Taking a learning approach to addressing challenges

What we can learn from this is that if we want a systemic theory of change we need to:

  • Understand the challenge and context you are operating in to systemically, so that you can present the whole picture of the projects work so that it creates a coherent narrative
  • Ensure that the pattern of the different impacts and outcomes are nested together and seeks connections between the interventions so that additionality is achieved to scale up our collective impacts
  • Names its assumptions and is open to change through learning



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Anna Birney

Anna Birney

Cultivating #systemschange | Director School of System Change | Passion #inquiry #livingsystems #livingchange