Untangling a Theory of Change

My client asked me to develop a Theory of Change as a visual summary of a multi-faceted strategy for social change.A Theory of Change is a tool and method for mapping how actions (such as social policy and programs) will influence change to lead to outcomes and long-term goals.  The Theory of Change mapping is a simple version of my practice of cause-and-effect modelling.  Theory of Change diagrams come in many formats and can be colourful illustrations of an organization’s vision.

The client provided their committee’s conclusion:  a document summarizing 25 actions leading to 17 outcomes, grouped into three themes.  There was a series of colour-coded grid squares showing that each action led to multiple outcomes, each outcome was influenced by multiple actions, and some of these influence relationships went across theme boundaries. The actions and outcomes were described with long phrases that had been carefully negotiated.

They wanted one readable diagram to convey the essence of this strategy to decision-makers and external stakeholders.

To untangle this knot I started by making it look more tangled, using Visio software:

Many colour-coded boxes of text (content obscured) connected by overlapping arrows

Stage 1: Connecting all the actions and outcomes in Visio

Then I broke this diagram into five readable 11″x17″ pages of related colour-coded boxes.  The client met me to review my shorter plain language names for the actions and outcomes, and decide which influence relationships were important enough to show on the final Theory of Change diagram.  We also discussed what visual metaphors would be appropriate.

I continued using Visio to develop the summarized diagram as long as possible, because it keeps arrows connected as you move the boxes around the page.  (PowerPoint also offers that feature.)  The final destination was Adobe Illustrator, which offers every imaginable graphic feature except connecting arrows to boxes!

Once the client has published the final diagram, I will post it so you can see how it’s possible to make sense of complexity.


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