From a Theory of Change to a Theory of Impact Resilience

More and more people are looking to large-scale social change processes to leverage their impact around very complex issues.  From poverty, health, education, epidemics, and inequity to water, air, green building, and renewable energy.  Scaling collective impact is everywhere.  I have been looking at, and engaging with many of these efforts, for two decades now.  In trying to figure out how to support large-scale change, many groups are trying to become evermore strategic.  As a big proponent of strategic clarity, I encourage the strategic dialog, and I encourage pathways that will support a group in getting to greater clarity about what they can do together and what will work.

In their strategic development processes, many groups now focus on developing a “theory of change.”  I agree that it is far easier to learn and refine a strategy when you have a theory of what you are going to do. And, I see some inherent difficulties in the way many groups currently frame their theory of change.  Hopefully a brief picture will clarify what I see as the intention and a better answer.

To start with, I see that most social-change efforts grow up around an effort that initially worked.  There was an intervention and there was an impact.  While not quite sure how it worked, the impact is there.  We created a kitchen, and more people were fed tonight.  In this experience, there is typically an implicit theory of “it just works.”  We do this, and we see the impact.  Usually the distance in time and space between the intervention and the impact is very low or immediate.  We can see it directly.  I see this as the lower-left quadrant in the 2×2 matrix below, low clarity of causality with a linear direction of causality.

Theory of Impact Resilience graphic for blog 032116a.001

This success often leads to the desire to scale the work, to get much greater impact.  To scale up the intervention often requires investment of greater capital.  Investors of this greater capital usually want to see a greater understanding of how the intervention will lead to the means that will drive the impact.  Greater investment wants to lower the risk of not understanding.  They want to see a theory of “change,” a “comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context.”  As far as I can tell, from what I see in foundation, nonprofit, and network reports and in my own conversations, most of these theories of change provide linear descriptions of how an intervention will lead to some specific means of change in a specific context that will lead to the desired social impact.  A to B to C.  I see this as the lower-right quadrant in the 2×2 matrix above, high clarity of causality with a linear direction of causality.  While this greater clarity of causality makes it much easier for the intervention leaders and the funders to test whether the intervention leads to the expected means and impacts, this linear approach to complex social issues leaves out a critical reality–feedback.

If the decisions you make today affect the decisions you can make tomorrow, then there is feedback.  A to C to A.  If the decisions you make influence others who then influence you, there is feedback.  All complex social issues contain impacts of any intervention on other stakeholders and on resources that influence the ability to continue to intervene in the future.  They all have feedback.

As the complexity of an intervention increases, like trying to feed a whole city through a large network of kitchens, most efforts seem to try to continue what they were doing before with just a lot more resources.  They use the same logic, on a bigger scale.  Lots of intervention, mixed with lots of magic, leads to lots of impact; so goes the “theory of I think.”  I think that if we just …  I see this as the upper-left quadrant in the 2×2 matrix above, low clarity of causality with a feedback direction of causality.  While the situation might be much more complex, with many more stakeholders and resources involved, I think if we just do a lot more, we will get much more impact.  It rarely works, often because of the unseen feedback effects, which is why social impact investors have moved more and more towards wanting to see something that demonstrates a greater clarity of causality.  Right now the best-in-class practice seems to be the “theory of change” I mentioned earlier.

To complete the high-level overview a theory of change provides, of the preconditions, pathways, and interventions needed to achieve the desired impact, many groups develop a complementary logic model and evaluation plan.  The logic model lays out a linear model of how the planned work with resource inputs and activities leads to the suggested outputs, outcomes, and eventual impact.  A very clean and relatively simple way to explain how to implement the theory of change.  The evaluation plan then provides measures to test the hypotheses for the different elements: the resource inputs; the activities; the outputs; the outcomes; and the impacts.  The strategy process then pulls together the theory of change, the logic model, and the evaluation plan, in a crisp, linear mapping.

Now, if (1) the social issues we face require much greater investment, influencing a greater number of stakeholders, in contexts of much greater feedback, and (2) a linear strategy based on a theory of change, logic model, and evaluation plan falls short of dealing with the feedback complexity, what do I suggest?  A “theory of impact resilience.” While a theory of change focuses on how a change in an intervention will lead to a change in specific means, which will drive change in a specific social impact–in a linear model–a theory of impact resilience looks at the system of causes, effects, feedback, and stakeholders that lead some interventions to generate a much more resilient system that delivers much greater, sustained impact.  I see this as the upper-right quadrant in the 2×2 matrix above, high clarity of causality with a feedback direction of causality.

Over the past twenty years, with many colleagues around the globe, we have developed systems-based strategic approaches to engaging multiple stakeholders around complex social issues.  There is now a whole industry of such approaches.  It turns out that it is not hard to bring together many people who are passionate about any specific social issue, find out how they each contribute different elements of the solution, and how they can work together to change the behavior of the whole system.  In the past decade alone, people have applied this kind of approach successfully on six continents to hundreds of important, complex social issues.  It only takes the will to do it, a little know-how and a few elapsed months of work.  Not decades.

So, while I applaud the desire of social impact investors to dramatically increase the clarity of causality between an intervention and a social impact, it is time that we move beyond “keep it simple,” linear models of causality to incorporate multi-stakeholder, feedback models of causality.  A theory of impact resilience, based on systemic, strategic approaches suggests how.  It provides a systemic theory, it lays out the systemic logic of how the interventions lead to shifts in the system of stakeholder responses and subsequent systemic impacts, and it provides an impact resilience scorecard of the systemic measures that indicate how the interventions are leading to systemic shifts, to greater resilience, and to scaling of the impacts.

4 Truths of Clarity

Understanding the complexity of our organizations, what they want to achieve, and how to go about achieving what they want isn’t hard because people don’t have the tools; it is hard because people haven’t been shown how to use them. What I refer to as “the Four Truths of Clarity” show that we do have the tools, and that to use them we simply need to overcome the barriers to using them.

  1. Not understanding the system clearly, as it really is, both in what it wants to achieve and in how it works, leads to very ineffective and inefficient systems. We experience this state of confusion when we lack clarity: on a personal level whenever we make an obvious mistake and say to ourselves, “I knew better than that”; on a group level whenever someone states after a group blunder, “I could have told you that, if you would have asked”; and on an organizational level whenever we see intelligent, passionate people with years of experience make seemingly stupid decisions.
  2. Not understanding the system clearly is caused by barriers to what we experience and by our ability to experience the system. The first barrier is that we are not able to process the infinite number of details available to us at all moments. And, with the inputs we are able to process, we don’t. The second barrier exists because we are usually mindless in a distracted state, paying attention to our own thoughts and not to the system.
  3. By understanding what influences these barriers to systems experiencing, we can overcome these barriers. The first barrier of cognitive ability can be overcome somewhat by recognizing its existence. Knowing that we are not capable of knowing everything puts us in the position of asking rather than assuming. The second barrier of mindful attention can be overcome by increasing our ability to be mindful to what we can process about the system.
  4. Since we experience systems through our body, heart, and head, overcoming the barriers requires that we build our capacity to experience systems through our body, heart, and head with greater clarity. Very simple exercises have been found to be useful and motivating in being mindful to information we receive from our body, heart, and head. It has also been shown that it is quite possible to develop one’s ability to act in a mindful, clear way continuously.

I previously published this observation, with a hat tip to the Buddha, as Ritchie-Dunham, James. 2005. The Four Truths of Clarity, Reflections; The SoL Journal of Knowledge, Learning and Change, 6(6/7), vi-vii.

GRASPing Ecosynomic Lenses

My colleagues and I have developed, over the past two decades, a systemic approach to strategic understanding of complex social systems.  We frame this work with the term GRASP, which reminds us of the five key elements of the strategic systems mapping: Goals, Resources, Actions, Structures, and People.  You can learn more about the GRASP framework and the strategic systems mapping process in our free online course (click here) or in a paper we published in the British journal Long Range Planning (click here).  Essentially, GRASP integrates the five big questions of strategic thinking:

  • Goals. Identify why the organization exists and what its global goal is. Identify stake- holders and their goals.
  • Resources.  Identify those resources that drive value (value-driving resources) for stakeholders and those that enable value (enabling resources). Balance the resource needs for all key stakeholders.
  • Actions.  Act at the level of enabling resources.
  • Structure.  Identify the linkages between goals, resources, and actions.
  • People.  Bring the organization to life. Identify the incentives of those groups that control parts of the organization. Align the organization’s structure and incentives to max- imize the organization’s potential.

In the Agreements Evidence Map, Ecosynomics suggests four lenses for looking at human agreements, asking the questions:

What does the GRASP map look like, from the perspective of the four lenses in the Agreements Evidence Map?  The GRASP map describes each of the four lenses, and how they fit together in a social system.

From the perspective of the four lenses in the Agreements Evidence Map:

  • the Resource lens looks at the enabling and value-driving Resources in the GRASP map
  • the Allocation lens describes the decision and enforcement policies and perspectives used by the People, the stakeholders, in the GRASP map
  • the Value lens highlights the Goals of the stakeholders in the social system, how the value-driving resources describe those Goals in the GRASP map, and the criteria People use to make the decisions they enforce
  • the Organization lens captures the Structure of the relationships amongst the goals, resources, actions, and people, as well as the Actions described by the rules of interaction, in the GRASP map

From the perspective of the GRASP elements:

  • the Goals describe what can be seen through the Values lens for the different stakeholders in the social system
  • the Resources describe the enabling and value-driving resources seen through the Resources lens
  • the Actions capture what people can do within the rules of interaction in the system, as seen through the Organization lens
  • the Structure describes the relationships amongst the elements of the system, as seen through the Organization lens
  • the People describe who makes decisions and enforces them, as seen through the Allocation lens, with what criteria, as seen through the Values lens

Thus, GRASP frames the agreements evidence mapping in integrated, strategic systems terms.

Is Your Strategic Framework Useful?: CRISP Criteria

As originally defined, the CRISP model[1] establishes criteria that a strategic process must meet to provide the intended “strategists” with the clarity they require to make efficient, effective decisions in a complex, self-organizing system.  While the criteria are easiest to remember as CRISP, their logical order is purposeful, comprehensive, integrative, rigorous, and simple.

  • Purposeful. Why we do this
  • Comprehensive. What elements we include
  • Integrative. How we relate the elements
  • Rigorous. How we test this
  • Simple. How we understand this

 

Purposeful

The purposeful criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process be clear why we are doing this process – the organizing essence of what we are trying to realize together. This is also known as the essential property of the system – the reason for which it exists, for which it self-organizes.

Comprehensive

The comprehensive criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process provide a clear understanding of the boundaries of what is included as relevant and what is not included.

Integrative

The integrative criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process make explicit the relationships among the different dimensions, perspectives, elements, and processes.

Rigorous

The rigorous criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process be observable in reality, and reproducible.

Simple

The simple criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process be simple enough to be understood.  This means that it must align with the rich complexity the human being is capable of understanding, not under or overwhelming them by dumbing down, oversimplifying, or overcomplicating the strategic process.

The CRISP criteria assess the degree to which a strategic framework supports the strategist in understanding what the system intends to achieve and how it works.

 

[1] Ritchie-Dunham, James L.  2008.  A Collaborative-Systemic Strategy Addressing the Dynamics of Poverty in Guatemala:  Converting Seeming Impossibilities into Strategic Probabilities. In Alleviating Poverty through Business Strategy, edited by C. Wankel. New York: Palgrave, 73-98. Macmillan.  Ritchie-Dunham, James L., and Luz Maria Puente. 2008.  Strategic Clarity: Actions for Identifying and Correcting Gaps in Mental Models, Long Range Planning 41(5), 509-529.

Guest post — A Vermont Case Study: Getting to 80% renewable energy by 2030

Guest post by Jennifer BermanContributing Fellow at The Institute for Strategic Clarity

[Jennifer Berman is the former Executive Director of the Maverick Lloyd Foundation and was the coordinator of EAN from 2009-2012. This case study was written in December 2012.]

In 2008, the Maverick Lloyd Foundation stepped back from ten years of philanthropic giving to explore how the foundation could be a more effective driver for change. Despite a significant investment of resources, the trustees knew that their giving strategies were not creating the impact they knew was possible—and necessary—if the state of Vermont was to address the urgent reality of climate change.

Inspired by the success of RE-AMP, a network of 144 non-profits and foundations working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in eight mid-western states, the foundation began to envision a social change process that could help catalyze large-scale coordinated action around a bold new vision for Vermont. The result of that early vision is Energy Action Network (EAN)—a powerful network of business, government and non-profit leaders who are aligned around the goal of meeting 80% of Vermont’s 2030 energy needs from renewable energy and increased efficiency.

Read the case study of the project (click here, revised 19March2017).

Comment by Jim Ritchie-Dunham.  Jenn Berman and I worked together on the EAN project through 2010 with our colleagues at GEP.  You can read more about the EAN project from an Ecosynomics perspective in the book Ecosynomics.

Free Online Courses from the Institute for Strategic Clarity

Learning from our colleagues around the world, about how to be much more inclusive in the sharing of our insights, the Institute for Strategic Clarity now offers three free, online courses:

Please enjoy the courses, give us feedback on them, and share them as widely as you want.

Dengue — A New Problem, Once Again

Dengue is back, with a vengeance, again.  “Dengue has emerged as a worldwide problem only since the 1950s…With more than one-third of the world’s population living in areas at risk for transmission, dengue infection is a leading cause of illness and death in the tropics and subtropics. As many as 100 million people are infected yearly. Dengue is caused by any one of four related viruses transmitted by mosquitoes. There are not yet any vaccines to prevent infection with dengue virus (DENV),” says the dengue website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That dengue is back suggests that we have to learn again how to deal with it.  Much recent research is trying to understand why dengue is making inroads into the US, and what to do about a virus that makes mosquitoes better spreaders of dengue.  The Institute for Strategic Clarity made a small contribution to the practice of working with the epidemiology of dengue back in the 1990s, as part of its work with the Mexican Secretariat of Health.  Two published papers described a simulator we developed on the Advisory Board to the Secretary of Health, in which the epidemiologists were able to simulate the conditions at the onset of the dengue epidemic and the impact of different intervention strategies.  Maybe this simulator could be useful again to those trying to understand the dynamics of dengue intervention.  It helped us in Mexico in the 1990s.

You can download for free:

  • the dengue simulator we used (click here), and the free iThink software to run the simulator (click here)
  • a technical paper describing the context in which we developed and used the simulator, along with the code for the simulator (click here)
  • a paper, in Spanish, about the experience from the Secretariat’s perspective (click here)

Creating Value with Strategic Resources

Past-cast Series — Seeing relevance in earlier publications

Puente, Luz Maria, and Hal Rabbino. 2003. Creating Value with Strategic Resources, The Connector: Connecting Systems Thinkers Around the World, 1(5), September-October.

Why do people have such a difficult time identifying the resources that create value for their organization? Our experience shows that this difficulty stems from a lack of understanding of how resources act together to create value.

The Dynamics of Our Relationship with Money

Past-cast Series — Seeing relevance in earlier publications

Ritchie-Dunham, James L., and Ned Hulbert. 2009. The Dynamics of Our Relationship with Money, White Paper, Belchertown, MA: Institute for Strategic Clarity, March.

We have been studying newly emerging agreements about money that are shifting human behavior in fundamental ways at a societal level. Based on our study of a number of authors on the topic of money, this paper seeks to synthesize their perspectives and to explore the dynamics of newly emerging systems of societal relationships at economic, political and cultural levels. By mapping these new relationships and behaviors, we hope to integrate and present them as helpful social insights.

The new ways of understanding and working with money have not yet been presented in a whole system picture. The presentation of a larger societal systems picture, along with analysis of the archetypal patterns behind it, can further dialogue among those concerned to understand and support a shift to a healthier social order.

A Framework for Achieving Clarity for You and Your Organization

Past-cast Series — Seeing relevance in earlier publications

Ritchie-Dunham, James. 2004. A Framework for Achieving Clarity for You and Your Organization, The Systems Thinker, 15(7), September, 7-8.

One of the keys to to being effective is to understand the complexity of your organization, what it seeks to achieve, and how you can contribute to that objective.  Through a series of exercises, you can gain clarity about these elements.  With an integrated understanding of what values drive the system’s behavior, how the parts of the system function, and how the values and parts relate, you will be much clearer in how your day-to-day actions will help you achieve the desired results for your area and organization.