Using Theories for Change

The concept of Theory of Change is meant to provide program planners and evaluators with guidance on how to make sense of the mechanisms that guide how something transforms. Theory of Change as a technique is usually visual, participatory and consultative in nature, and is something that is developed alongside the program itself. What is given less attention are the change theories that underpin a Theory of Change.

Confused? You’re not alone.

Clarifying this is critical if your Theory of Change is to have any meaning.

Change Theories & Theory of Change

Change theories are based (largely) on psychological and sociological evidence applied to human behaviour at different levels. These levels include:

  • Individuals
  • Groups (e.g., teams, families)
  • Organizations
  • Communities
  • Societies & Systems

Some change theories will apply at all of these levels, while some are designed more specifically for a specific level. For example, Kotter’s 8-step model for leading change is primarily an organizational change theory.

Change theories are meant to describe what is to change and explain how change is to come about. These serve as the bedrock for what a Theory of Change is meant to convey. A Theory of Change links the structures and resources tied to a specific program, unit, or process with various change theories to explain why it should facilitate transformation.

Design Considerations

While we might have a viable change theory, we might not have a strong design. We often see organizations that seek to make changes that their programs or policies were not designed to accomplish. For example, cognitive rational change theories are built upon the basic assumption that knowledge informs attitudes and beliefs which influence behaviour.

If your program or service doesn’t have a design that facilitates information accessibility that allows your end user (those who are the focus of your service) to understand and use that information, it’s unlikely we will see change. Just-in-time knowledge delivery (e.g., doing a Google search) implies that people have the means (e.g., tools and technology), the literacy, the skills, and the opportunity to access and use that knowledge, otherwise it’s not likely to facilitate change.

Being able to locate a family doctor isn’t useful if you can only do it at a time and place when such a professional isn’t needed.

Theories of Change can help us plan our programs and service offerings and plot the points of impact, but without good change theories and design considerations it’s quite possible we won’t achieve what we set out to do.

Want to learn more about how to develop Theories of Change and what an understanding of social and behavioural science and design can do to help you learn and create impactful programs? Contact us. We’d love to connect.

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