How to Create a Theory of Change

In Part 1 of this series, I explained what a Theory of Change is and why it can be useful for changes on a personal and organizational level. In this post, I’ll explain how to create a theory of change, using the following format:

For this example, let’s say that I am overweight and out of shape. I want to improve my health, so I decide to construct a theory of change and action plan that will help me in that process.

Step 1: Desired Change Assumptions. In this step I look at all of the underlying causes of my less-than-stellar health and why I think I got that way. For this example, I’ll say that I want to change because I haven’t been feeling well and I want more energy. The underlying causes of my health problems are poor eating habits and a lack of exercise. Ideally, I would like to be fit enough to run in a 5k and want to eat at least 5 servings of fresh fruit and vegetables every day.

Step 2: Actions. This is the traditional action planning step that most of us are familiar with. In this step I’ll brainstorm all of the things I need to achieve my desired outcome. Because I think I need more exercise, I decide that I’ll join a gym and work with a trainer. I also need to learn more about nutrition, so I’ll go to the library and research good eating habits. In working with my trainer, we come up with a 5 times per week workout plan and an eating schedule of 5 small meals per day. I’ll continue in this plan for 3 months.

Step 3: Results & Reflection. Some changes can take place quickly, but many are an ongoing process – such as my health improvement example. When this is the case, it’s helpful to pause occasionally and assess the progress that you’ve made so far. Then you can determine if you want to continue doing the same actions, take a break, or rework your assumptions and actions for better results. After my 3 months of improved diet and exercise, I’ll assess my fitness by running in a 5k race. I’ll review my food logs to see if I’ve been eating better. Then I will decide if I want to work toward more improvement or come up with a maintenance plan.

The real power of a Theory of Change is that it forces you to examine the assumptions behind your thinking. My example is a pretty simple one, but in a more complex situation, this 1st step is very helpful. It is also a continuous improvement type of process that requires evaluation and at least thinking about ways to make your processes and plans better.

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