Exploring the origins, ethics and future of changemaking

There’s a hole in my bucket: a theory of change

In Theories of Change on April 24, 2012 at 10:56 am

I have long been fascinated by the theories and principles upon which changemakers or social entrepreneurs build their businesses or programs. Having a ‘theory of change’ has become an expected feature of any social organisation be it part of their marketing or a more fundamental driver of their work.

The common theory of change in the western world has been influenced by rational, linear thinking: if we engage in a certain activity, then it will this short term impact, then this long term impact. This is most readily seen in the logic model form of:

Need/Problem > Activity/Solution> Outputs > Short-term Outcomes > Long-term Outcomes

Articulating a theory of change in this way often assumes that all outcomes are positive or successful. This linear model of change denies the complexity that ‘change-work’ exists within, and almost always excludes new problems that are created by the activity (or solution).

I have observed some other aspects of the change process that make it appear more circular:

  • All problems have a solution (most often lying in the problem itself)
  • All solutions create new problems (often larger and more complex than the original problem)
  • Every problem serves a purpose (it was once the solution to a previous problem)
  • That purpose wants to see the problem perpetuate
  • Any attempt to solve the problem will attract resistance from protectors of the problem (further aiding the problem’s existence)
  • If you understand and bring consciousness to the problem, it most often dissolves (thus not needing to be solved)
  • All problems are fueled by self-interest (if humans couldn’t see the problem, would it exist as a problem?)
  • Regardless of the above, humans are built to create and solve and create new problems (thus we loop back in our circular problem-solution-problem model)

Like Henry and Liza’s trouble with the hole in their bucket, we see the same thing play out in the field of social change. Changemakers are perpetually seeking to solve the world’s problems.

We hear the phrase regularly, “we cannot fix the problem with the same level of consciousness that created it”. What did Einstein mean by that? What does it mean to bring a higher consciousness to changemaking?

It may mean to bring humility. Often the underlying sentiment is, “I have a higher consciousness and this is the solution”. Is this really humility?

Humility in social changemaking means to say, “I don’t have the answer”. I don’t really know what it will take. I have a hunch that this might work, but we really need to enter this change process creatively and consciously. We need to recognise that as we go about creating change, things are going to get messy, complex and our understanding of the problem is going to grow.

What does it take to break free of that cause-effect loop and enter at a whole new level? Can that even be done? Could the world be problem free? Should it be problem free? Perhaps problems serve their own higher purpose in the world. Perhaps the world is a school and our problems are teachers. Then again, changemaking is also a teacher. Perhaps I should just let go and relish in our circular world. After all, Henry and Liza may not have lived happily ever after, but they did live.

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