A motor and a rudder

Having done a bit of work on researching and sketching out strategies this week, I realized that there are some commonalities in their theories of change, a few patterns that I start seeing.

The first pattern is what I want to call a “motor.” Every effective theory of change seems to have a means for sustaining the process of change. When drawing out boxes and arrows in such theories, eventually a motor pops out as a cycle of causal relationships: if we do more of this, more of that will happen, which will allow us to do more of this, etc. It can be something that involves network effects (aka flywheel), or it can be something as simple as “if we deliver <blah>, we get funded to deliver more <blah>.” In either case, there’s something that serves as a source of energy, allowing us to keep going. There doesn’t have to be just one. Just like in any reliable ship, several motors are useful for redundancy. Conversely, if our theory of change is just linear sequences of steps, chances are that it’s not a very durable one.

The second pattern is a “rudder.” Now that we’ve powered the tiny ship of our theory of change with a motor, we need a way to steer it. A rudder manifests as causal arrows that interact with the object of change. They also look like a cycle, but here, they will look more like an OODA loop: ship something, get feedback, adjust, ship something again, etc. 

Rudders are critical to a sound theory of change. Change rarely happens in one big splash, and our ideas about the effects of the change tend to seem naive and silly when they make contact with reality. For example, back in the Web Platform days, I kept trying to build more rudders: from Origin Trials to Web Confluence to Lighthouse.

Next time when you’re in a strategic thinking mood, consider your theory of change, be that the one of your organization, your team, or your own. What are its motors? What are its rudders? How do you power and steer the ship of your destiny?

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