THEORY OF CHANGE: the unbearable thought of beginning at the end

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THEORY OF CHANGE: the unbearable thought of beginning at the end

ZIGLA has been working with Theories of Change (TOC) for a good number of years by now, using it as a planning strategy for organizations and their programs. From the beginning, we knew that using this methodology would be demanding, uncomfortable and sometimes even ungrateful. Not only for us, but specially for the organizations and the people who would get involved in the process. In this post, we try to summarize the reasons why a TOC can be perceived as uncomfortable, even if in the end it is always worth facing the challenge.

“Oh time, all your ephemeral pyramids”

 First of all, any organization or team who is thinking about using a TOC methodology for the first time has to be ready to give up the most precious resource of life: time. A TOC as a product necessarily requires a TOC perspective and to implement TOC processes (1), and this requires time. We advise not to trust any enthusiasts who propose to retreat to a beautiful countryside house and come out with a finished TOC in a single day, validated by an entire team. Still, this downside to a TOC can be but a tiny slip, as long as the wind is in our favor. Organizations with enough training in planning a TOC could definitely review and define their own TOC in short times, but those who are starting from zero should know that a TOC product can really not be ready in just a few hours, no matter how much coffee and sticky notes are available to them.

In part, this is because a TOC product, in order to be successful for the organization and its stakeholders, should have legitimacy (support and validation from the members) and consistency (logic sense, coherence, feasibility). These are attributes that, just like good wine, require time to mature. Otherwise, the TOC might become neglected and fall in disuse.

So then, how can we build legitimacy and consistency throughout this process? The whole approach to a TOC is in itself participatory. It’s important that the key people (even the allies) who are able to add knowledge and adopt complementary points of view participate in –and not only assist to— the entire process of a TOC, in order to better understand the big picture of the situation.

At the same time, all the progress and intermediate products achieved throughout the process should be validated with the participants and other external actors, so they can be enriched and gain even more legitimacy in between sessions. Apart from the time, the participants should also contribute with their own particular skills, as well as with virtues that can sometimes be scarce: patience, empathy, openness and humility.

Meeting all these conditions will lead to a legitimate TOC. For the product of this process to be consistent as well, the organization should have a facilitator or support team who has the experience as well as the emotional and technical skills needed to lead and organize the process and document it in a final product. This role can surely be played by a member of the organization itself, as long as that person is impartial and able to mediate in tense situations without bias, creative enough to motivate the team to get out of their comfort zone, and has the authority given by the rest of the participants. If the organization doesn’t have someone like that in its team… well, you better call ZIGLA.

“… and that two and two makes three”

There’s yet another reason that can usually make organization uneasy about a TOC, especially those with a long trajectory who have worked in auto-pilot for many years. In a TOC process, you always begin at the end. The starting point is reflecting upon and defining the long-term impact the organization strives to achieve (vision of success). The last thing to define is what the organization will do to achieve that impact (the intervention). This is precisely opposite to how organizations often plan and think about their programs.

In traditional planning, organizations already know what they want to do, or at least they have an intuition (programs, projects, etc.), and then they project the actions they want to take into the future to understand the effects their intervention will have. As in the upside-down world (2), they make sense of their present by explaining the things that they already do, and not by reflecting on what they aspire to achieve.

When that happens, day-to-day business takes over, the frenzy of management leaves little room for planning the long-term. This is most frequent –as well as most important-, in social organizations, even if it’s not exclusive to them. Private companies, philanthropic and mixed organizations, social investors; they all suffer from the same symptoms. For them, their identity is built and defined through their actions, and not through their expected results. “I am what I do” is their moto.

The TOC fights this dynamic head-on, and instead suggests a different way: to redefine that which we want to achieve in the future, in order to understand what we actually need to do in the present. This is the main reason why a TOC can make organizations uneasy, but it’s also what makes it so valuable as a methodology capable of reverting years of feverish management and tired planning. A TOC faces us with a simple and straight request: tell me what you look for, and I’ll tell you who you are.

(1) We call TOC both the methodological process the team goes through, as well as the product achieved at the end of said process (usually summarized in a TOC Diagram).

(2) A song by María Elena Walsh

Fundó ZIGLA Consultores en 2009. Es asesor de empresas y consultor de Organismos internacionales y distintas fundaciones globales.

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