Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Why You Need a Theory of Change

Plus, What That Is, and How to Start Building One

Kai Chan

This is part of a series, How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

It’s become de rigueur among NGOs and foundations to have and expect a theory of change. It’s just as important for researchers and scholars in an environmental or sustainability context. But few of us make these theories explicit, which greatly limits our contributions to a better world.

Change—An Ultimate Purpose

Unlike academia in general, effecting change is a key purpose in sustainability science. The vast majority of our program’s prospective students have clearly gravitated toward research with the hope that it can contribute to a better world. Many of us realize that globally, we’re not on a great track, and we don’t know all that we need to know to get on that better track. Honestly, I don’t think I’d take on a student who wasn’t motivated to contribute to change.

Some people need to understand
how we theorize change to happen
before they can jump on board.

Theory Matters

But why do we need to theorize about the change our work might effect? Isn’t it obvious that discovering more about how the environment functions, or how technology or policy might improve human outcomes, would seamlessly and linearly yield that better world we seek? (This is the ‘linear model’ of science and policy.)

Ah, no. That’s rarely how the world works. In his book The Honest Broker, Roger Pielke Jr. reviews the problems with this linear view of science contributing to policy. Related, Naomi Oreskes has revealed the messy histories of science yielding policy change.

The truth is that we’re still learning a lot about how change happens, not just about environmental and social-ecological problems or technological ‘solutions’. Theory is central to how we learn about these problems and solutions, why is it such an afterthought for how our research contributes to change

Presumably it’s because our thinking and our institutions are still structured around the linear model, even though we know it to be false.

We can do better—by being explicit about our theories of change, and testing them.

What is a Theory of Change?

For many, it’s not even clear what a theory of change is. It sounds so simple, but we academics tend to overcomplicate things.

Take this definition, for instance, from an otherwise-helpful paper about theories of change: “a process for individual and organizational learning that includes analysis of actions, outcomes, and consideration of the explicit and implicit assumptions about how actions and outcomes are interconnected”. This seems to conflate the theory of change itself with the process of articulating it.

Let’s make it simple. For me*, a theory of change is how actions yield outcomes. Precisely, it's a set of explicit and implicit assumptions about how actions might yield outcomes.

Without a sensible theory of change, we may
find ourselves on a bridge to nowhere.

Theories of Change in Research vs. Practice

Theories of change are already very popular among NGOs. But they’re rarely tested and often full of important unspecified assumptions. It’s not clear that such a static approach is helpful anywhere (more on this another time), but it seems entirely contradictory in a research context, where a key purpose is learning.

Thus, our task is to make as many of the important assumptions explicit, so we’re not caught unawares by what we didn’t know we didn’t know.

Examples and Stories

My own career can be understood as a process of dabbling with different theories of change, as I vaulted from one field/literature to another.

I started in ecology and evolution, where effecting change wasn’t the prevailing purpose (so a theory of change didn’t really make sense). And it was obvious to me that there was a huge gulf between knowledge and practice.

When I sought a more direct link, I tinkered with philosophical ethics while studying public policy. It struck me that the prevailing theory of change was, “Deliberation, introspection, and reasoned argument will inspire norm change.”

But most people don’t derive their lifestyles and choices from deliberation and introspection (Daniel Kahneman helped me see this, he being one of the faculty members leading this policy program at Princeton). So for my postdoc, I jumped to the field of ecosystem services to work with Gretchen Daily.

In the budding field of ecosystem services—where decision-making was centralacademics were cozy with business folks, NGO leaders, and policymakers. The theory of change seemed (and seems) to be, “Collaborative information-providing relationships with well-intentioned decision-makers will improve aggregate human well-being.

Thanks again to Daniel Kahneman—and also Amos Tversky—I already knew that this approach relied on the implicit assumption that people act as rational agents, and that decision-makers would be driven to improve public well-being. I needed to explore the limits of these assumptions (as with models, an assumption can be false—not wholly true—and yet, still useful).

I worked with this theory of change for years—decades even—with colleagues and students. I started with the Natural Capital Project, then worked separately on ecosystem services in central BC, coastal Vancouver Island, and Canada-wide. We had some notable successes, and we encountered roadblocks.

My experience on international science-policy stages has convinced me of the limitations
of prevailing theories of change—especially for some kinds of change. UNESCO theatre,
 Paris, for the IPBES Global Assessment—courtesy of Shizuka Hashimoto.

Through the IPBES Global Assessment, I finally came to see that while this theory of change could work for empowered folks and for changes that aligned with existing systems, it would not work for changes that threaten the structure of systems (transformative changes). Yet these are the exact changes needed, as we found in Chapter 5 (see also here).

So now I’ve thrown my lot in with another theory of change: that people will transform systems when a critical mass of them has four key components (in short: hope; knowledge of the critical moves; infrastructure for action; and a supportive community). Providing those components is the work of CoSphere—our new coalition and community for transformative change to combat the climate-and-ecological crisis.


No matter what you do, it’s likely to take you years to sort through your ideas about effective routes to change. By being explicit about your theories and their supporting assumptions, and by reading and hearing about others’ efforts and experiences, we can speed that process up enormously. Or, at least, that’s my theory. ;)

Next: Identifying the Problem (Step 1.1): An Impactful Interdisciplinary Research Project Is One that Fulfills You

Previous: Why Some PhD Courses Shouldn't Have Grades

The Intro to this series: How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.

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