more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

Jim Coe: Theories of change vs dart throwing chimps

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Jim Coe has kindly agreed to us re-posting his blog demolishing ‘Theories of Change.’ He has captured the essence of why so many organisational campaign planning efforts – as they are actually practiced – are unable to handle the complexity of the real world. The blog was originally posted at CoeAndKingham.org.uk

Jim Coe

Jim Coe will smash your theory of change

I wouldn’t ideally call it a ‘theory of change’, but I think it can be really helpful to develop – at an organisational level – a shared view of how change happens, the power dynamics at play, and the best ways to intervene.

The absence of this sort of analysis can be problematic for many reasons, to do with what flows into this gap in understanding.

However, it’s at the campaign level, not the organisational one, where ‘theories of change’ are all the rage these days.

And, as a planning process and tool, the approach has some obvious advantages:

It uncovers, and allows for interrogation of, assumptions about how change happens.

The process of developing theories of change can expose vague and unfounded assumptions and help ensure that strategy is anchored around the change you are trying to achieve.

The process of planning can give valuable space to reflect on the bigger picture.

This is true as long as it doesn’t just end up privileging particular groups or opinions and excluding others (which it can easily do, for reasons to do with how power plays out).

It can help create a common understanding.

Theories of change can get everyone on the same page, and help in communicating a common direction.

On the downside, though, I would say that campaign ‘theories of change’ are pretty much nonsense. In that they are based on – and then further encourage – a fundamental misinterpretation of how change happens:

1/ PREDICTION

Campaign ‘theories of change’ tend start from the expectation that social change is predictable and that the steps can be plausibly laid out.

In a few cases – to do with the stability of the issue or the context – some sort of formalised forward planning may make sense. And in theory, if not generally in practice, there is scope to continually adapt the ‘theory of change’ as the context evolves.

But even so, the ‘theories of change’ approach seems to be based on over-optimism at best.

In a classic 20 year study for example, political psychologist Philip Tetlock asked nearly 300 experts to make political and policy predictions in their specialist fields, and he then looked back on these predictions and reviewed their accuracy.

He found that the forecasts overall were barely better than a ‘chimp strategy’ [of randomly guessing], and in many cases they were worse.

Tetlock judged the reasons for this poor showing were to do with:

* How change actually happens (and its inherent unpredictability)

* The psychological properties of people making the predictions (we prefer simplicity, are averse to ambiguity, like to believe in a controllable world, etc.)

These factors combined make it unsurprising that predictions about what will happen and what actually does happen can be so far away from each other.

2/ THE SOURCE OF CHANGE

Theories of change – as they are typically applied – help promote a false and solipsistic sense of organisational self-importance.

They are attractive because they fit with our understanding of time, as something that goes forward. We intervene and this has effects that then lead to later outcomes.

This very much encourages a distorted, organisation-centred picture of the nature of change, with everyone else bit part players in it.

But social change is far more likely to be happening in all kinds of directions, driven by all sorts of actors and factors in all sorts of different combinations. Organisations find themselves aiming at moving targets rather than living in a world where everything else revolves around the organisation whose theory of change it is.

And so as an alternative I would suggest a more sensible approach to campaign planning, a ‘balance of forces’ approach, based on:

1. mapping where the power lies in the system
2. setting out the barriers to achieving the desired change (and the favourable factors)
3. identifying in what ways the campaign will intervene to change this balance

The campaign plan would then follow this logic, setting out

* What needs to change and

* Which changes the campaign is focused on helping to achieve, and how

Not in a grand, long-term blueprint sense, but in a ‘let’s do this and then see where we are’ kind of way.

Ongoing planning would then be about iterative course-correcting. Revisiting the analysis of the barriers to change along the way, tracking any progress, or shifts, and adapting strategy as needed.

This approach

* Embeds the importance of a robust analysis of power and the dynamics of change

* Focuses on outcomes and the kinds of interventions an organisation can best make to help achieve them

* Helps in shaping a common strategy

* Allows for a more fluid approach, a shift from ‘predict and control’ to ‘assess and react’

And its starting point is a much truer picture of how change actually happens.

Jim’s take on Theory of Change is closely related to the chapter of my book, Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people, on strategy and planning. You can order it here.

Add a comment

Book preview: Micro-managing the Arab Spring

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Below is the first published snippet of ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ The crowd-funding campaign for the book will launch this Friday on StartSomeGood.com. Join the email list for updates.

Arab Spring fire, Collin David Anderson, used under Creative Commons

‘Does anyone have the authority to sign-off on this?’ (Collin David Anderson, used under Creative Commons)

Imagine the first strategy meeting amongst an imaginary coalition of NGOs involved in ‘strategising’ for the delivery of the ‘Arab Spring 2011’ program. Probably in about April 2002:

“Our vision is: ‘A series of mostly peaceful revolts across the Middle East and North Africa in the spring of 2011, overthrowing longstanding dictatorships and kicking-off a process of bottom-up democratisation throughout the region.’”

“Great. What are our targets gonna be? Have we identified strategic partners in each of the countries? What will we accept as a ‘democratic’ victory? Do we have a system of risk management? How will we measure the impact?…”

If they had somehow managed what we now know was achieved by less strategic or coordinated means, think for a minute how the follow-up meetings might have gone:

“Do we have a figure on ‘total persons liberated’ yet?”

“What if that figure goes up after the funding period is over? Think we could fudge it a bit to boost the numbers?”

“We’re probably gonna want to avoid mentioning too much about Syria in the final report… Bahrain too.”

“We’ll have to talk about Libya, but is there a way we can avoid giving NATO too much credit on that one? If we make it look like they were the critical success factor, they’ll get all the funding in the next round.”

“Can we reshape the vision statement to reflect Tunisia and Egypt more strongly? If we were aiming to liberate the whole region and only two dictators were ousted, it’ll be easy to say the programme was a failure. What if we said it was something about ‘supporting peaceful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt’? Then we can credit the other stuff as unexpected fringe benefits of our interventions… maybe we can build the next funding app around some of the other countries that have been ‘prepared’ for future peaceful revolutions?…”

There were of course many organisations that played roles within the various uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011, but there was no organisation that could effectively or meaningfully take credit for what took place in any single country, let alone the entire region.

Organisations (clearly structured institutions) have, throughout history played important roles in countless social movements (looser, larger, emergent and wholly autonomous masses of people), yet have repeatedly failed to understand the differences between the two forms.

The organising principles which underpin organisations and movements are almost diametrically opposed to one another, even if from the outside (and generally through the condensed lens of history) their aims and beliefs appear perfectly aligned.

An organisation in a movement is too often like the friend-of-a-friend at a high school house party who hasn’t grasped the etiquette of the group they’ve stumbled into. They do inappropriate things, hit on people they should know not to hit on, say things they shouldn’t say… and ultimately end up too drunk for their own good, being looked after by some sympathetic stranger who wants to keep them from getting beat-up or seriously damaging the furniture.

…Maybe that last bit pushed the metaphor a bit, but anyone who has participated in a movement without their organisational hat on knows the tension that emerges when an institution tries to impose hierarchy on something for which there are simultaneously no leaders and an ever-changing plethora of leaders coming-and-going, depending on the specifics of the situation.

This tension might be sparked by unannounced organisational recruitment drives at broader movement events or actions. It might be in the domination of organising meetings with particular agendas and aims. It could be the prevalence of a particular organisational face in media coverage or publicity, taking disproportionate credit for something which has in fact been a much broader effort.

This is not to say that people who work for organisations cannot bring just as much value, resource and experience to a movement as any of the rest of us, but that too often this requires their aims as individual activists to trump their aims as employees of an institution.

The desires to build brand recognition, to secure funding, to promote awareness of a particular agenda or individual name are practically speaking at odds with actually working towards a better world. They distract from the tasks at hand. We began by explaining them to ourselves as ‘necessary evils’ in the world of organising, until they gradually assumed a considerable bulk of our work. The tail is wagging the dog.

We have put the ‘cart before the horse’ when the structures created to help achieve change, become the institution’s primary reasons for being. Over time, almost without fail those ‘helpful’ structures end up practically at odds with the change they were meant to support – often at the point of engagement between the organisation itself, and the bigger movement that it is a part of.

Our organisations need to be more sensitive to their environments, and accept that we are guests in broader movements for change, rather than the stars of the show, as so much organisational campaigning, publicity and fundraising efforts have pushed us to try to be over the years.

Becoming aware of the ways our organisational hats might be at odds with the aims of a movement, is a critical step towards making a positive difference in this emergent world. If we want to be meaningful and constructive contributors, we need to understand the principles that help movements to thrive, even if they seem immediately at odds with the principles that have driven our organisations for so long.

As you read this, there are countless emergent social movements that could benefit from the people, experience and resources that our organisations have within their walls. Finding ways to work constructively – rather than antagonistically – with these looser networks will be a defining distinction of established organisations that remain important in the movements of the not-so-distant future.

But doing so means learning to take on some of the qualities of these looser networks…

_________

This was taken from Chapter 3: ‘The myth of hierarchical necessity and what we can do for ourselves.’ To read more, this book will need to be crowd-funded. Join the email list, ‘like’ the Facebook page, or sign-up to the Facebook crowd-funding event, to make sure you get the updates when the campaign goes live on Friday! Big advance thank you hugs for helping to make this possible! 🙂

3 comments

More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.

Fatal error: Uncaught Error: Call to undefined function mysql_query() in /var/sites/m/morelikepeople.org/public_html/wp-content/plugins/quickstats/quickstats.php:345 Stack trace: #0 /var/sites/m/morelikepeople.org/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-hook.php(288): JQ_updateStats('') #1 /var/sites/m/morelikepeople.org/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-hook.php(312): WP_Hook->apply_filters(NULL, Array) #2 /var/sites/m/morelikepeople.org/public_html/wp-includes/plugin.php(478): WP_Hook->do_action(Array) #3 /var/sites/m/morelikepeople.org/public_html/wp-includes/load.php(947): do_action('shutdown') #4 [internal function]: shutdown_action_hook() #5 {main} thrown in /var/sites/m/morelikepeople.org/public_html/wp-content/plugins/quickstats/quickstats.php on line 345