Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Scenarios and Theory of Change

Sometimes you can stimulate strategic thinking by combining use of various tools and techniques. Here’s an example: using scenario planning in tandem with theory of change.

Let’s start by defining each one. And then we can talk about how the two tools can work together. First scenario planning. According to What If? The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits (July 2004), published by the Global Business Network, “scenario thinking is a tool for motivating people to challenge the status quo, or get better at doing so, by asking "What if?" Asking "What if?" in a disciplined way allows you to rehearse the possibilities of tomorrow, and then to take action today empowered by those provocations and insights. What if we are about to experience a revolutionary change that will bring new challenges for nonprofits? Or enter a risk-averse world of few gains, yet few losses? What if we experience a renaissance of social innovation? And, importantly, what if the future brings new and unforeseen opportunities or challenges for your organization? Will you be ready to act?" (For a downloadable copy of What If? The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits, go to: http://www.gbn.com/ArticleDisplayServlet.srv?aid=32655)

Now for theory of change. For our definition we go to the website of Theory of Change. This site is a joint-effort of ActKnowledge and the Aspen Institute. The site defines a theory of change as: “an innovative tool to design and evaluate social change initiatives. By creating a blueprint of the building blocks required to achieve a social change initiative’s long-term goal, such as improving a neighborhood’s literacy levels or academic achievement, a theory of change offers a clear roadmap to achieve your results, identifying the preconditions, pathways, and interventions necessary for an initiative’s success.”

Now let’s talk about how the two can work together. We can start by posing the following questions: “Does your organization base its work on a coherent theory of change? What is it?” Use scenario planning to develop alternative pictures of how the future will play out for your organization, your customers, your issue or field of work – your “part of the world”. Then pose the question “How does our theory of change fit in each of those alternative futures? Will the theory of change work? How do the alternative scenarios challenge assumptions on which you base your theory of change? How does that theory of change stand up to the future? Do you need to modify your theory of change to fit with emerging realities?”

For more information about theory of change, go to: http://www.theoryofchange.org/index.html. The site introduces a process for developing a theory of change, gives examples of this process, and tackles several interesting advanced topics on putting the process into practice.