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Embracing the process

Bringing theory of change and systems change together

One of our favourite phrases at NPC is ‘the process is as important as the product’. So, a week after we launched our new guide to theory of change for systems change, I wanted to reflect on the process that we went through writing it.

The work grappled with the tensions between theory of change and systems change, attempting to explain or resolve them. Theory of change provides organisations with a method for thinking through what they do and why. Systems change is about trying to make a difference to persistent social problems such as substance misuse, homelessness, and generational disadvantage. So what happens when these disciplines talk to each other?

Finding out required many people generously sharing their wisdom and experience with us. We gathered insights from Coventry to Cape Town, from Nepal to Nairobi, from Southwark to Seattle, from Oxford to Adelaide. Our conversations have brought together people with different perspectives and explored the knotty issues of power, culture, and language.

We’ve realised that some words divide us: ‘system’, ‘mechanism’, ‘theory’, and ‘intervention’. Other words resonate across boundaries: ‘people’, ‘lives’, ‘change’, and ‘learning’. Some people love to think in metaphors—theory of change as a compass, systems change as gardening—while others find this distracting and unhelpful.

As researchers some of this was challenging, and at times uncomfortable. But the process has taught us that we need to stop trying to resolve these tensions and instead embrace them.

Every different perspective brings something to the table. A theory of change perspective can help you to reflect on how you achieve your mission, but it can also limit your horizons. A systems change perspective broadens your horizons and opens up the complexity of the systems around you, but it can be overwhelming. Charting a course between the two can help you to stay grounded in both your own work and the wider systems in which you operate.

Above all, we’ve come to understand that charities and funders don’t need to become experts in theory of change and systems change to benefit from them. Both disciplines are as much about a questioning and challenging mindset as much as they are about any particular tool or method.

Our new guide Thinking big: How to use theory of change for systems change is an attempt to distil practical and accessible guidance from both disciplines, to create rules of thumb that we hope will help charities pursue their missions with vigour, clarity of purpose, and thoughtfulness. You can download it here.

Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss further—we welcome your comments as we continue to learn and reflect.