We live in a time where it’s necessary to think about ways to make a real difference. People all over the world are running courageous experiments aiming to contribute to a peaceful, just and regenerative world. But how many of them consider the work to be an experiment? How many of us are aware of what beliefs we’re testing?
In supporting dozens of organisations aiming to change the way their society, politics, economy functions, I’ve learnt that often the conversation about ‘Theory of Change’ (your theory for how change happens and your contribution to that) is mostly avoided. Some people have never heard of it, some people find it confrontational to have to examine their own beliefs, others find it too intellectual.
What’s common across every attempt of social change is that you do have a theory of change, you might just not have made it explicit yet.
By not examining your assumptions, you risk your approach being entirely inefficient or ineffectual, and you’ve just never stopped to check.
People often ask — “when should we think about our Theory of Change, and how do we do that? It sounds hard!” Developing a Theory of Change in a traditional manner is expensive and time intensive — a bit like creating a big business plan before the Business Model Canvas existed. What’s important is to start exploring your thinking: Why are you doing what you’re doing, and what you are hoping will happen because of it? In this article I’m exploring key ideas behind the question “Will it make a difference?” and cover some ground which might help you make it more likely that your thing will have an impact.
Match up Problems with Interventions
There is no best way to tackle a social or environmental problem. There are only good strategies and interventions, and finding those depends on the context of the problem.
Finding a good strategy is easy enough in theory, but in practice this means taking the time to examine power dynamics, historical attempts to shift the needle on an issue, and mapping the kinds of feedback loops that are perpetuating issues.
My changemaker sword was forged in the fires of the climate movement, so I love these examples from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Seeing a diversity of approaches helps show that although it might be easy to think of a way to tackle an issue, there are many you might not have immediately considered that might also be powerful.
There are countless initiatives in every local community in the world that bring people together, help young people grow, help to restore a stream, develop a young person’s confidence or change a cyclepath bylaw. All these interventions have different effects and they’re built with different assumptions behind them about how change happens, and some are more proven than others. What’s the definition of the problem? Is a lack of cycle-paths the problem or is the problem an unhealthy city or climate change? And then is cyclepath bylaw the solution to those problems? And why?
This huge variety of interventions shows just how many options we have for making a difference. We need to think hard about which one (or a combination of approaches) is right for the issue we’re interested in. My dear friend Zaid Hassan talks about “defining the challenge at the scale of the problem”. Think community gardens to prevent climate change. Sometimes a mismatch of problem and intervention leads you somewhere mildly empowering, but not necessarily effective. If there is a supermarket chain coming into your local neighbourhood and contributing to gentrification and a reduction of locally owned businesses, is the problem at the level of the main street stakeholders? Is the problem at the level of regional housing prices? Is the problem at the level of city policy on building and land use? Or is it about a subsidised oil price making multinational food companies outcompete local producers? The truth is, its probably a bit of everything. But through some investigation you can discover which problem to tackle first for greatest leverage. If you hold a few street blockades and nothing happens, it’s time to start thinking about what else is behind these issues.
Don’t assume the first problem you think of is the real nature of the problem, otherwise you’ll pour energy into making change, and get no change.
Here’s a longer explanation of ten theories of change from the AYCC (Australian Youth Climate Coalition).
Complexity: The world will shift under your feet
Let’s shift the focus now from high level problem definition thinking to how people and teams operate based on information they have and stories they tell themselves. Many people on a mission to make a difference try to use traditional management, strategy and planning thinking to feel like they’re “on track to deliver results”. Some NGOs will invest 6–8 months into making a perfect picture of how their resources will be best invested for the most impact. But, even if you’re using a good variety of approaches based on a well mapped context, having an annual calendar of activities doesn’t necessarily make the difference you want to make.
Influencing the future is not a straightforward or linear process, and most of it is unpredictable.
We cannot assume that the impact of an initially brilliant program will remain high over time, and a strategy that was effective for the nuclear-free movement 30 years ago might not apply now. Ultimately, as changemakers we are making a series of educated guesses about what might be a powerful thing to try next. After you take your first step, the context will have changed again, so your theory behind how you intend to make a difference needs to respond to that new information. Not only do you need to test your hunches in the real world, you need to sit down and re-evaluate your hunches after you have tried something.
A good friend of mine said “You don’t judge a good scientist by what they’ve proven, as much as how many hypotheses they have let go of.”
Traditional “Theory of Change” approaches need to get Agile
Some people criticise the process of creating a Theory of Change due to the risk of it being over-simplified in the face of interconnected global issues. It can be! You need to articulate how each hunch or hypothesis is linked to another one at a bigger scale, and re-evaluate it all when your results disprove your hunches. Otherwise your investment in an impact strategy of any kind is TOAST.
“In a world in which everything is always changing, for large complex systems, a singular Theory of Change could become it’s own limitation. While it is appealing to have a well defined all encompassing Theory of Change, the term “Theory of Change” itself becomes contradictory when we consider the chaotic nature of Change.” Excerpt from How useful is Theory of Change when working in large complex systems?
This can sound complicated, but in my experience it’s actually easier to assume all systems are complex, than to sit down with a spreadsheet and try to predict or plan how you’re going to create global impact before starting.
- Name your initial, educated guess at what might be impactful
(including naming your assumptions),
- find a way to test that in practice quickly
- and compare it to others having tested something else in the real world,
- then review the test and the assumptions.
Let’s make this concrete. In 2013 we began developing LifehackHQ ~ a youth wellbeing and tech social lab in New Zealand. The scope was to make a real difference to the staggering suicide rates for young kiwis, through the large scale reach of consumer facing mobile apps. The initial attempts were focussed on youth starting enterprises themselves. Get a group of “hipsters, hackers and hustlers” (designers, developers and business undergrads) into a room for a weekend to design mobile apps. The idea was that if young people experience wellbeing issues personally they will have the insights that will drive the businesses and they will have access to a market that digital professionals might otherwise not understand.
In reality, young people’s lives change too much too frequently for many of these teams to work together over a longer timeframe to pursue the ideas they came up with. Anything from moving cities, a busy semester, or someone facing health issues themselves made it impossible for the initial cohorts of teams to stick out the validation process. In addition, most of this age group are just starting their skill development, and basic coding skills mixed with basic mental health training mixed with basic design skills didn’t add up to a transformative intervention.
So the focus shifted. Plenty of small, under-funded organisations across the country need help. The idea was that with skilled-volunteering hackathons we can help excellent small organisations expand the reach and effectiveness of their services through digital and youth-driven means. This time we had many events across the country filled with professional film makers, designers, youth workers, mothers, young people, teachers, coaches, local business owners and more helping carefully selected non-profits for 3 days. This worked much better. Immediate, measurably positive outcomes for everyone involved, from a sense of citizenship to new digital tools for organisations who were better connected with the young people they aim to serve.
But the learning and pivoting didn’t stop. A young man in Greymouth took us to his ancestral lands after a day of hacking and helping. He sat us down by the river Arahura and said
“I want to know who the other people are in that room. I want to know who they are deeply. It doesn’t help me to sit in a circle and hear names and hear people say what skills they’re bringing. I don’t know who they really. I want to connect to where they’re coming from as people. This is how I believe working together for our young people can be truly powerful.”
From then on we designed our work to focus on human connection, human transformation, leadership development and collective intelligence. We let go of technology as an outcome, and embraced technology as a means. We let go of scale, and embraced depth. We ran longer events, we invested in hiring technology companies run by young people for deeper partnerships with non-profits serving under-served communities. We developed a community of people who felt their life had been irreversibly directed towards creating wellbeing for all young kiwis. We listened, and we kept listening. LifehackHQ’s story is a longer one, and now it’s even more inspiring. From entrepreneurship education to system change — if you want more of this goodness check out the reports at lifehackhq.co.
The point is, there is enormous value in naming what you want to change, how you think you’re going to change it, and staying awake to whether or not that’s true. The world changes as you interfere with it. You can’t just “pilot” something and roll it out. We need our impact strategies to be as agile as the nature of the ever-shifting issues we’re tampering with.
Shared understanding = shared creative leadership
Okay yep, articulating what I want to change, trying things, I get it, this is just obvious! What’s not obvious is that if you fail to share the learning loop with other people in your organisation or team, they will not be able to be agile with you. Most organisations are organised hierarchically, so the small number of people who can see the whole system can pivot hard and confuse or hurt others in the process. Utilise moments of stopping to check — what’s really happening here? What do we now know about the system that we didn’t before? Stop at milestones to review your real world information together. Make time to talk about why things might need to change and keep changing, and how to move forward stronger, in the context of a changing theory of impact.
One of the most useful aspects of having a clear impact strategy is that it makes it much easier for you to make decisions as a group. We can’t do it all. Where do we invest? How do we focus? Why are we doing this? These questions which normally make your leadership teams’ stomach hurt when others ask them too frequently are fun and empowering to answer as a group if everyone you’re working with has agreement on the approach.
Now, I’m not talking about your team sitting in a bubble of self-convinced warmth reinforcing each other’s biases. That’s far too easy. What is powerful is a group conversation about how you intend to make an impact, starting from noticing assumptions you’re taking for granted.
- What are we assuming about how change happens?
- How are our assumptions different from what other people assume because of their different life experiences?
- Do we have people with first-hand experience of the issues in the room with us?
- What unique passions and talents does this group bring to the issues — and how does this affect what we see as possible?
Asking and answering these sorts of questions together over time can be a profoundly powerful way of not only steering your work towards impact, but also helping the whole team build the capacity to co-create a light to shine on the path ahead rather than tending to rely on one person for this analysis.
Since most issues are complex, and problem definition is subjective, choosing to get better at group discussions like this could one day enable a leap in thinking for everyone. Working out what you’re testing together increases your ability to be insight-driven as a team, rather than tradition-driven. This might make all the difference.
Pulling together your lean impact strategy onto one page…
From problem to solution, vision to team talents and partners, developing an impact strategy can become someone’s full time job. But one experiment I’m running with some friends is if we produce some easy-to-use resources for start ups and non-profits alike to capture how they think they’re making impact and iterate on it will be easier and cheaper to work out how to make a real difference. If you liked this blog and want more, check out impactcanvas.co and let’s start sketching your lean impact strategy.