Systems thinking: theory of change

image showing theory of change as outlined in the text

I’ve been a methodology geek for a while and I am now moving on from development methods to wider programme and change methodologies – fun for some of us I can assure you.  This post is an anchor for some work I am doing in this area as I am thinking about the methods and process which support digital and social change.

Theory of change is a method to support system change planning.  You can dig into the theory of the theory if you like and I would recommend starting with the Tavistock Institute folks who I have learned a lot from.  Based on this and also the wider system thinking field I tend to work to a fairly simple theory of change in this respect which has three main pillars:

1. Map your system levers and maintain this as a dynamic map
2. Cultivate and curate a network of active participants who want to work together differently
3. Create some kind of engine of change which can be brought to bear on system wide problems which will further develop the system change map as well as the network of active participants. At the moment I am looking at an innovation lab approach but you could also use a systemic programme like NHS Citizen or a particular imperative – any burning platform can be used to build this engine.

Once you have this structure then you are looking for a scope for your system so that you know where your boundaries are – even if these are blurred.  You are then looking for an animating mission which you can use to drive this change and fuel the engine.  This is the territory of burning platforms and the leadership challenge is, I believe, selecting a change mission which speaks to both the head and the heart of the organisation.

Part of picking the mission is looking at where in the system you have ‘stuckness’ – where is change not happening – and then applying the change engine to that problem or area as a priority. I am always fascinated as to the different parts of systems which get stuck but if you can find these and then apply social and technical pressure then you can create momentum and permission for other people/places to also change.

This approach is hugely influenced by my experience of working on NHS Citizen and I have written more about this here.  Its an evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach – the basic idea is that these three activities can be used over to time to better align an organisation as a system rather than disconnected silos of activity. It was always a cliche but there really is no silver bullet here – where you require social and technical change both of these arenas will be unique to the system in which you are operating. No two legacy landscapes are ever the same either in terms of the culture of the organisation or the systems which over time will have developed to reflect it.

I’m taking a socio-technical view of systems thinking for anyone who is interested…..


One comment
  1. Eileen Conn

    November 1, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    Hi Catherine – I did post a comment (see below) a few weeks ago, but am trying again. I have tried over the years to make some connection with you as my work has relevance to the issues you are working on. I am perplexed at no response at all as they give the impression of being interested in responses. I’d be grateful if you would email just to let me know what yr approach is to posting comments that you receive. I’d like to hear from you. If you say that you are not able to have dialogue with someone you don’t know, I will not email ypou again. Please let me know on

    Previous comment:
    This one – ‘2. Cultivate and curate a network of active participants who want to work together differently’ is especially relevant working inside the community system which we have been doing for over 14 years now. We have a field of nearly 9000 connections to local individuals, within which the very much smaller network is rooted. But year by year it grows, and may become significant in stimulating the changes needed in the system interactions between the horizontal neighbourhood community system and the vertical local state institutional system. Are you interested in learning more about this? If so please email


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