SKILLFUL MEANS INC
STRATEGY & ORGANIZATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Three powerful conceptual tools can help us ensure we develop strategy which reflects the complexity of the world in which we seek to make change.
"Theory of change" as a term of art in planning and evaluation dates from the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change in the mid 1990's. Its conceptual roots can be found earlier in the work of Chris Argyris and Donald Schön on "learning loops" (1975) and David Kolb (1985).
A theory of change outlines why we believe a set of activities and outputs will lead to a particular result. Why will intervention A lead to outcome B? What rationale underlies our assumptions and how well tested are these assumptions? Why, for example, do we believe that building civil society institutions leads to a more vibrant and inclusive society and a more responsive government?
Skillful Means, spends a significant amount of time with clients clarifying the assumptions and articulating -- and refining -- the theory behind a proposed strategy.
The "logical framework" was first proposed in the late 1960's as a tool to help program managers think about project design. The most tangible advantage of a logical framework model is that it focuses attention on outcomes and impact rather than goals and objectives. The language of "goal" and "objective" can be fuzzy (in fact, the words are essentially synonyms), can overlap, can tempt us to confuse long term aspirations with short and medium term accomplishments.
Outcomes are objectives that can in fact be reached, given the institution's resources, time frame, environmental constraints and state of understanding of a problem. They are nouns (a "school", a "model program", a "policy paper") rather than verbs ("to improve...)
Impact is the expected effect of an overall goal, if achieved. Again, it should be framed as a long term accomplishment (a "30% increase in graduation rates") rather than a ("improve education for every child...").
Institutions need to develop models that make sense in their settings and given their mission. Skillful Means has helped a number of clients develop, refine and use logical frameworks.
One critical challenge for institutions and individuals involved in effecting change is determining the nature of the challenge, in order to determine the appropriate intervention strategy.
In the early 1990s, Ronald Heifitz, at Harvard Kennedy School, proposed an interesting typology of situations, initially labeled Types 1, 2 and 3. The most critical distinction is between situations whose resolution – even if extremely complex – is essentially technical, and situations whose resolution requires fundamental changes in the personal beliefs, social attitudes, cultural constraints – situations which require an individual, group or institution to adapt.
Technical challenges lend themselves to rational analysis, expert interventions, logical frameworks; adaptive challenges require much deeper analysis, much more patience, and much greater willingness to empower local stakeholders to experiment with approaches.
An even deeper analysis of the range of complexity inherent in situations (and institutions) was formulated by David Snowden in 1999 and developed by him and others in the next decade as the “cynefin” framework (a Welsh word of some complexity itself).
For nonprofits and foundations concerned with social change, the framework provides deep insights on the kinds of strategies and interventions that will likely be required.
Theory of Change