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CHANGE & COMPLEXITY: VECTOR THEORY OF CHANGE
A THEORY OF CHANGE FOR COMPLEX SYSTEMS
2021December

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:

  • STEP 1: START FROM WHERE YOU ARE
  • STEP 2: SETTING DIRECTION & FINDING STEPPING STONES
  • STEP 3: DESIGNING INTERVENTIONS
  • STEP 4: CONTINUOUS FEEDBACK

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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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.
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