Most people have a theory of change even if they haven’t attempted to name it. Mine is simply “stuff happens”.
Stuff happens may be self-explanatory if you see the world as uncertain, interconnected and complex. Using stuff happens as a theory of change prevents some naivety, but it should not create complacency about our responsibility to anticipate the future and act in ways consistent with our vision.
Scholars no doubt have serious and profound labels and lengthy papers describing different theories of change. With no disrespect to their scholarship, I’ll continue to keep it simple so you can name and understand your own preferred theory of change.
- Ideas move people. After listening to a scholar of ideas recently, I could see how much he truly believes that great thinkers shape movements and therefore history. Our values and beliefs do matter and it can be easy to overlook the subtle ways in which society changes its priorities.
- Leaders decide. This might also be called the great man/woman theory. These important people call the shots. They can have crucial position power to intervene in events. However, if they are unable to read the conditions in their environment, they may discover that power has too little leverage over outcomes. They might be in a stronger position if they operate out of a belief that leaders guide rather than decide.
- Technologies change us. Yes they give us extraordinary capabilities for the things we want to do and sometimes they even create needs we didn’t know we had. But study technology adoption and abandonment closely and you start to see the limitations of using new technologies to explain what the future might hold.
- Change is evolutionary. While stuff happens is a dynamic and disruptive way to explain change, the evolutionary theory assumes some invisible logic is operating in the universe. When we look at the past to forecast the future, we are exercising a belief that change is evolutionary. As our financial advisors always caution us, past performance is no assurance of future performance.
- Crowdsourcing is the new paradigm. Here in 2013 we have great enthusiasm for our ability to communicate with and organize the masses. It’s as if we believe we have a direct channel into the global mind. What we may instead be discovering is how fast Twitter affirms our confusion and conflicts.
For me, using a “stuff happens” theory of change forces me to dig deeper for explanations and be humble when the inexplicable happens. I am confident that anticipatory learning at least prepares us to see the strategic opportunities amid uncertainty. So use your theory of change or mine. The most important advice is to pay attention, learn, and prepare for anything that could happen.