The ghost of unclear theory of change

The unclear theory of change often haunts conversations about strategy — especially the longer-term strategy. It may be worth pointing out the ghost: “what’s our theory of change?” If you look up the basics of the theory of change, this might seem simplistic. However establishing a shared understanding of the causal links between short-term and long-term goals is an exercise that almost always yields productive outcomes.

One of my vivid memories is that of my former colleague, a then-newcomer, making their first presentation to the team leads. In a few slides, they outlined the theory of change based on what they learned from talking with the team. Though it was merely a summary of already-existing embodied knowledge, the reaction varied from “omg this is brilliant!” to “this is not at all what we’re doing!” The sudden apparition of the theory of change was startling. The team was months into the project, yet didn’t have a shared understanding of how their daily work shaped the path to their long term ambitions. Though that particular example was particularly dramatic, I’ve now seen this scenario play out many times.

A common symptom of unclear theory of change is endless contentious conversations between tech leads that the typical “disagree and commit” tactic can’t seem to allay, or sub-teams slowly but surely diverging and building duplicate bits of the stack. In these situations, we’re better off pausing to wonder: are there different theories of change at play? And what they might be? It may seem silly to sit down as a small group of leads and draw some boxes and arrows — this stuff should be obvious to anyone, right? Yet, if you’re experiencing the symptoms, the silly exercise might be just the thing to bring some peace to the haunted team.

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