Theories of Change – Part 2 Linear/systems thinking and strategy

Read part 1 here.

The international development expert Duncan Green, states that theories of change “locate a programme, project, or campaign within a wider analysis of how change comes about. They articulate and challenge our assumptions and acknowledge the influence of wider systems and actors.” [1]

He explains that the concept originated from two very different disciplines: evaluation and social action. Evaluation aims to clarify the links between project inputs and outcomes. Social action seeks to encourage a group to work collectively towards a shared goal. Green describes how evaluation specialists have done innovative thinking on systems, which is probably because they assess impact so are forced to look closely at how change really happens. This also includes how systems and power derail activist plans. For Green, those participating in social action, navigating complex systems come to realise that linear thinking – if we do x then we will achieve y – is not how things happen in the real world. [1]

For Green, a ‘system’ is “an interconnected set of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its part: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors, and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.”

He explains that a defining property of human systems is complexity. They can not be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect, because of the vast number of interactions and feedback loops among the many components. He gives examples of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings in the sky, and how it’s impossible to predict their movements. And there is order because so few collisions occur on most crowded streets. [2]

Green makes an important observation that confusion occurs when activists conflate how changes happens in a system with how we intend to change it, which he calls a ‘theory of action’. He describes how in his experience, activists focus much more on their own strategy (theory of action), rather than on “the wider world – the dynamic context that should determine their intervention. A ToC should contemplate both the context and the theory of action.”

Green likes to view ToC as “a compass, not a map, a dynamic process rather than a static document, that allows for assumptions to be regularly challenged and updated. It encourages a greater focus on learning through a continual back and forth between emerging evidence from the changing local context and the theory on which the programme is based.”

He describes how a theory of change is best used when activists are ready to accept their own cognitive constraints and therefore challenge their attachment to certain ways of thinking. We need to be willing to ask fundamental and potentially awkward questions, and the structures we work in must be prepared to alter the direction of projects. [3]

Green describes three reasons why ToC approaches do not have more widespread adoption. The first is the top-down solution by consultants, universities or think tanks that are created without the experts speaking to anyone on the ground. The second is the ‘toolkit temptation’, people want an idea of where to begin resulting in toolkits and best-practice guidelines. Green argues that this approach is often incompatible with the kinds of systems thinking that underpins effective activism. The third reason is the demand for quick results. It is much easier to ‘prove’ results by assuming the world is linear, which reinforces the ‘x to y’ mindset.

Theories of change and strategy

As Green describes, some seem to see ‘theory of change’ and ‘strategy’ as interchangeable. I think that Green’s distinction between ToC and theory of action is helpful. I see theory of action and strategy as similar.

First, its helpful to explore what ‘strategy’ is. The traditional linear strategy framework involves setting a goal, then the strategy is the steps between where you are now to that point, A to B. Then tactics fit under strategy as a number of steps, project, actions or campaigns that add up to getting from A to B. This could apply at different scales – movement, organisation, campaign.

Another perspective on strategy is by Richard Rumelt, who is seen as one of the world’s most influential thinkers on strategy and management. In his book Good Strategy Bad Strategy, Rumelt describes what makes good and bad strategy. I’m no fan of Rumelt but he certainly knows what he’s talking about in relation to strategy. He is critical of the traditional strategy framework described above and lists three elements that made up the kernel of good strategy: the Diagnosis, the Guiding Policy, Coherent Action.

The diagnosis is the “why”, what’s going on here? “A diagnosis names or classifies the situation, linking facts into patterns and suggesting that more attention be paid to some issues and less to others.” [4]
The Guiding Policy – the ‘how’: “outlines an overall approach for overcoming the obstacles highlighted by the diagnose. It is called “‘guiding’ because it channels action in certain directions without defining exactly what shall be done.” and “good guiding policies are not goals or visions or images of desirable end states, they define a method of grappling with the situation and ruling out a vast array of possible actions.” [5]
Coherent Action – the ‘what’: “Moving to action- in many situations the main impediment to action is the forlorn hope that certain painful choices or actions can be avoided. That the whole long list of hoped-for ‘priorities’ can be achieved. It is the hard craft of strategy to decide which priority shall take precedence. Only then can action be taken. And there is no greater tool for sharpening ideas than the necessity to act.” [6]

Rumelt explains that many people use the term ‘strategy’ for what he calls the ‘guiding policy’ and he sees this as a mistake. A diagnosis is needed so that the alternative guiding policies can be evaluated. The first round of action needs to be worked through to be sure that the guiding policy can be implemented. [6] Here is a Summary of Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. I can see similarities between Green’s understand of ToC and Rumelt’s understanding of strategy.


  1. How Change Happens, Duncan Green, 2016, page 236
  2. How Change Happens, page 9-10
  3. How Change Happens, page 236
  4. Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, Richard Rumelt, 2012, page 79
  5. Good Strategy Bad Strategy, page 84
  6. Good Strategy Bad Strategy, page 88