A theory of change is the theoretical underpinnings of a social intervention or plan to change something—a collection of approaches broadly aimed at strategic planning, description, monitoring and evaluation. This is a useful approach when working within ordered systems where the relationship between cause and effect is clear and predictable (see the Cynefin framework).
The Cynefin Company offers a different approach, developed by Dave Snowden, called vector theory of change. To manage complex environments, the focus needs to shift from lofty long-term goals to a cyclical process with four steps:
However, this approach to change will not be useful when operating within a complex system. Complex environments are dynamic in nature: cause and effect relationships can only be deduced in retrospect, and the environment will (hopefully) change and evolve in response to the interventions and actions taken. Moreover, traditional approaches to change tend to break goals down into isolated problems, where complex systems are defined by the interconnections and entanglements between parts, and cannot be broken down into smaller pieces—any attempt to do so will change the system itself in unpredictable ways.
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