Applying Theory of Change Thinking to Sustainability Offerings

Applying Theory of Change Thinking to Sustainability Offerings

A Theory of Change is a model of how an intervention contributes to impact.

The model reflects our best understanding of reality at a moment in time and is grounded in the best evidence available.

It is a useful model for developing sustainability offerings. The Theory of Change provides answers to the questions how, why, for whom and under what circumstances the offering will have the claimed impact. If you don’t answer these questions, there is guesswork and obfuscation between your sustainability offering and your sustainability claims.

This is where charges of greenwash arise. With all the major environmental indicators in decline, there is an understandable cynicism about sustainability claims. Many sustainability offerings can look like tactics in delay from making the necessary changes to address this “code red”* situation for humanity (*ref 6th report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

Organisations that value their reputation, their legacy and that want to be on the right side of history need a story about how they are contributing a positive impact. They need a story that they can tell with a sense of pride and that can bear external scrutiny.

If your story stands up and the impact does not materialise, then you know you have a failure of implementation (or a Theory of Action failure). If implementation is good but impact fails, then you will know that that the theory underpinning your story was wrong. This is a Theory of Change failure.

The stakes are high. You need to get both right. And predicting the impact of a sustainability offering is uncertain. However, the opportunity is to name the uncertainties and to use them as a source of learning, building competitive advantage.  Applying Theory of Change thinking to develop and monitor your sustainability offerings is what a learning organisation would do.

The characteristics of an effective Theory of Change include:

  • Brings critical assumptions about the change process to the surface
  • Explains the dynamics within a system by organising inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes and impact into pathways that lead to change
  • Takes into account the messiness (non-linearity) of change
  • Is grounded in the local context and is therefore context-specific
  • Includes the stakeholders in the system who influence the change process
  • The theory is co-created with those stakeholders
  • The exercise becomes a continuous process of adaptation and improvement

See more on sustainability conundrums.

See more on measuring impact.

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