Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Theory of Change

I am increasingly convinced that the difference between effective and ineffective people is their skill at developing a theory of change. Theory of change is a funny phrase — I first heard it in the nonprofit community, but it’s also widespread in politics and really applies to just about everything. Unfortunately, very few people seem to be very good at it.

Let’s take a concrete example. Imagine you want to decrease the size of the defense budget. The typical way you might approach this is to look around at the things you know how to do and do them on the issue of decreasing the defense budget. So, if you have a blog, you might write a blog post about why the defense budget should be decreased and tell your friends about it on Facebook and Twitter. If you’re a professional writer, you might write a book on the subject. If you’re an academic, you might publish some papers. Let’s call this strategy a “theory of action”: you work forwards from what you know how to do to try to find things you can do that will accomplish your goal.

A theory of change is the opposite of a theory of action — it works backwards from the goal, in concrete steps, to figure out what you can do to achieve it. To develop a theory of change, you need to start at the end and repeatedly ask yourself, “Concretely, how does one achieve that?” A decrease in the defense budget: how does one achieve that? Yes, you.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Congress passes a new budget with a smaller authorization for defense next year.

Yes, that’s true — but let’s get more concrete. How does that happen?

AUDIENCE: Uh, you get a majority of the House and Senate to vote for it and the President to sign it.

Great, great — so how do you get them to do that? Now we have to think about what motivates politicians to support something. This is a really tricky question, but it’s totally crucial if we want to be effective. After all, if we don’t eventually motivate the politicians, then what we’ve done is useless for achieving our goal. (Unless we can think of some other way to shrink the defense budget.)

But this is also not an insoluble problem. Put yourself in the shoes of a politician for a moment. What would motivate you? Well, on the one hand, there’s what you think is right. Then there’s what will help you get reelected. And finally there’s peer pressure and other sort of psychological motivations that get people to do things that don’t meet their own goals.

So the first would suggest a strategy of persuading politicians that cutting the defense budget was a good idea. The second would suggest organizing a constituency in their districts that would demand they cut the defense budget. And maybe one of you can figure out how to use the third—that’s a little trickier.

But let’s stick with the first, since that’s the most standard. What convinces politicians that something is the right thing to do?

AUDIENCE: Their beliefs?

In a sense, I suppose. But those are going to be pretty hard to change. I’m thinking more, if you have a politician with a given set of beliefs, how do you convince them that cutting the defense budget advances those beliefs?

AUDIENCE: You outline why to them.

Well, OK, let’s think about that. Do you think if you ran into Nancy Pelosi in the hallway here and you tried to explain to her why cutting the defense budget would accomplish her beliefs, that you’d convince her?

AUDIENCE: Probably not.

Why not?

AUDIENCE: Because she wouldn’t really listen to me — she’d just smile and nod.

Yeah. Nancy Pelosi doesn’t trust you. She’s never met you. You’re not particularly credible. So you need to find people the politicians trust and get them to convince the politicians.

Alright, well, we can continue down this road for a while — figuring out who politicians trust, figuring out how to persuade them, figuring out how to get them to, in turn, persuade the politicians, etc. Then, when the politicians are persuaded, there’s the task of developing something they can vote for, getting it introduced so they can vote on it, then getting them to vote on the specific measure even when they agree with the overall idea. You can see that this can take quite a while.

It’s not easy. It could take a while before you get to a concrete action that you can take. But do you see how this is entirely crucial if you want to be effective? Now maybe if you’re only writing a blog post, it’s not worth it. Not everything we do has to be maximally effective. But DC is filled with organizations that spend millions of dollars each year and have hardly even begun to think about these questions. I’m not saying their money is totally wasted — it certainly has some positive impacts — but it could do so much more if the people in charge thought, concretely, about how it was supposed to accomplish their goals.

I’ll close with one more example, showing how this strategy can be used personally as well. I was at a party once and I told someone I was writing a book and that I wanted it to be a bestseller. They laughed at that and I think it’s because they had a theory of action model in their head: you write the best book you can, and of course you want it to be a bestseller, but either it does or it doesn’t.

But I was working backwards, I had a theory of change: I asked, What makes something a best seller? Well, lots of people buy it. OK, how do you get lots of people to buy something? Well, you have to persuade them it’s something they want. OK, how do you persuade them it’s something they want? Well, first it has to meet some desire or need they have and second you need to explain to them how it meets that need. So what are the desires or needs people have? (Looking at bestsellers: entertainment, escape, self-improvement, etc.) What are the ways of explaining your book meets their need? (Being popular early on, appearances in the media, persuading readers to tell other readers, etc.)

Again, we can keep going for quite a while until we get all the way back to something I can actually do. But because of this, I didn’t have to simply have to hope that my book became a bestseller, like every other author. I could actually do something about it.

That’s the power of a theory of change.

You should follow me on twitter here.

March 14, 2010


Excellent Entry Aaron. Goldratt wrote a good book called “It’s Not Luck” which introduces a number of “Thinking Processes”. The process you describe above is one of them. Goldratt’s book is in the form of a fable, but another author Lisa J. Sheinkopf wrote a book called “Thinking for a Change” which enumerates the processes steps more clearly. Thought these might be helpful references as well. The name “Theory of Change” though is quite a bit more catchy than their terms. :)

Thanks for taking the time to pen your thoughts.

posted by Matthew Michels on March 15, 2010 #

If you write “I was writing a book and (…) wanted it to be a bestseller” + “Looking at bestsellers: entertainment”, a reasonable conclusion would be that you were writing a book which was, before all, entertaining. ‘Building Progammable Web Sites’ ? hard to believe that its first quality would be entertainmenticity… So, another opus on fire ?

posted by Bertrand on March 15, 2010 #

I was going to ask if there were any books or other materials that you would recommend if I wanted to learn more, and it seems Matthew has already supplied some of that information. Googling “Thinking for a change” throws up two distinct titles, so I’m glad we have an author for one of them.

Is there anything you would recommend, Aaron?

posted by JeremyCherfas on March 15, 2010 #

I have not found most books on this subject to be particularly helpful.

posted by Aaron Swartz on March 15, 2010 #

This post was quite reassuring, albeit for perverse reasons. I work in the nonprofit world and use the “theory of change” concept in much that I think and do. It has lead me to a new field of practice that no one has successfully implemented, because I think it is the missing piece in the change process. I HATE to be bad at what I do, but trying and failing and learning at the missing piece is better than doing the same-old-thing that doesn’t work. Or at least I hope it is. I realize you are using “theory of change” to identify the components of success, while I am using it to identify the point of failure, but the post was still reassuring.

posted by Warren Yoder on March 15, 2010 #

aaron — thanks for an interesting viewpoint. very gladwell-esque, except with an implicit call to action. is it relatively safe to say your theory can be distilled to earning trust in order to persuade/convince/influence others? trust is one of those fuzzy areas that is often abused by, for example, car salesmen and mortgage brokers. their talent in earning your trust speaks to the one-way street that trust entails. we put our trust into those who we WANT to trust, not necessarily into those who want to earn our trust. so while the writer or activist wants to inspire change and needs to gain credibility by earning trust, it is more the perception of trust (a la salesmen) that may most likely net them the change they are aiming for.

i like it, either way. thanks.

~jenn @revolucion0

posted by Jenn Topper on March 16, 2010 #

“I was at a party once and I told someone I was writing a book and that I wanted it to be a bestseller. They laughed at that and I think it’s because they had a theory of action model in their head: you write the best book you can, and of course you want it to be a bestseller, but either it does or it doesn’t.”

Well, I wasn’t there, but a possible other reason is that the number of people who want their books to be bestsellers, far exceeds, almost by definition, the number of possible bestsellers. So it’s a bit like hearing someone say “I want to win the lottery” (yes, of course you do, you and all the other players).

“Again, we can keep going for quite a while until we get all the way back to something I can actually do.”

Can you (do)? That it the core of the matter. It’s quite an art to write a bestseller-potential book. Then there’s the promotion if it, which if nothing else, TAKES TIME (and usually money).

Basically, you’re neglecting the possibility of getting all the way to back to finding you can’t do it. Or, more accurately, to outcomes like “nobody knows how to do it” or “it’s very high risk to try to do it”.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on March 16, 2010 #

@Seth: The difference between the lottery and writing a best selling book is complexity. Short of criminal means, there is literally only one step involved in lottery: getting a ticket. The only variance here, obviously, is the amount of tickets you get. Writing a bestseller on the other hand affords you an unlimited amount of choices in every step along the way.

It is a pity then, that disregarding all the choices involved most would-be writers opt to focus on rather unimportant things that generally cost time without improving their chances instead of learning the craft or researching the market. When they finally think about how to publish, they are easy bait for scam artists that pose as publishers but charge them a nominal fee to print their book.

Going by the theory of change, you pass the most difficult (well, sort of; once you arrive there, these goals aren’t necessarily any more difficult than anything else you’ve done to get there) or distant goals first. This way, you can stay on track, always evaluating your actions and whether they bring you closer to acheiving your end goal. I really really like the thinking involved here and I shall apply the backward strategy to improve my decision-making. It really is time to stop looking for nails to hammer in when what you really need is a different tool.

Thank you, Aaron.

posted by Berthold Barth on April 20, 2010 #

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