Thinking out of the box sounds good in principle yet can be difficult to do in practice. What if, say, you are the box, or you don’t know you’re in a box, or you can’t see the box? What if others you’re working with are in boxes, or don’t know they’re in boxes, or want to put you in a box, or don’t like your box? I was asked once to coach and mentor an HR colleague who needed to learn to think outside of the box. I asked for clarification. It turns out they meant that she lacked, yet needed, strategic thinking and systems thinking for her role. She looked at me blankly. She couldn’t see what she couldn’t see.
I wondered how to enable her to make a shift from conceptual (‘strategic’, ‘systemic’) to practical; from abstract ideas to concrete examples that she could work with and learn from. She described herself as a detail person, trained to spot the critical points in the micro, e.g. salary spreadsheets so that reports were accurate and errors were avoided. I decided, therefore, to start with an example in the micro and to work out from there to a wider macro. This, I hoped, would gradually bring wider systemic and strategic issues and perspectives into view and highlight the links between them.
I invited her to bring an example from her work. She chose an email from a client in her business partner role. It raised a query about how to deal with a performance issue in his team. She had been about to respond to the email with advice on performance management policies and procedures. I invited her to draw a small box on a large, blank sheet of paper and to draw the person inside the box who was to be performance managed. I then invited her to draw a larger box outside of that box and to draw anyone or anything in that box that could be influencing the person’s performance.
As she considered this, various issues and key people came to mind. She wrote them in the box. I asked, ‘What might these different stakeholders hope you will take into account in addressing this?’ She jotted down those thoughts too. I then invited her to draw an even larger box around that one…and repeated the process until we had reached external stakeholders, opportunities and risks and future horizons. At each stage, she was able to consider significant questions and intervention options. It brought a wider picture into view so that she could see it. How do you deal with boxes?
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What’s your theory of change? What issues are you trying to address? What creates and sustains those issues? What kind of interventions and when are most likely to prove successful? What would success look and feel like, and for whom? What is your overall goal? These are some of the questions we looked at on a Theory of Change workshop I took part in yesterday. Theories of change are becoming increasingly commonplace in the third sector, paralleling e.g. strategy maps in other sectors. There are a number of reasons for this. Charities and NGOs are under increasing scrutiny from supporters and funders to demonstrate how their resources are being used to achieve optimal impact. This has created a whole industry in impact evaluation.
The third sector is maturing too. No longer driven into action by empathy or altruistic instinct alone, organisations in this sector have more experience, more evidence of what works and what doesn’t and more analysis and understanding of why. The issues have turned out to be more complex than some had originally imagined, making significant and sustained progress challenging. Against this backdrop, a theory of change can prove valuable. It aims to clarify goals and outcomes and to work back to activities and other factors that will enable the outcomes to be achieved. In articulating these things clearly and succinctly (often in simple graphic flowchart form), underlying assumptions and causal links can be surfaced, explained and tested.
At heart, a theory of change answers questions such as ‘What are we trying to achieve?’, ‘What is necessary for the goal to be achieved?’ and ‘What’s the rationale behind our intervention strategy?’ In doing so, it makes the organisation’s focus, operations and use of resources transparent, accountable and more open to challenge and improvement as new research and evidence emerges. I find myself particularly drawn to the critical-reflective aspects. For instance, one NGO I worked with conducted a fundamental strategy review starting with these same principles, asking questions such as, ‘Why are people poor?, ‘What causes and sustains poverty?’, ‘What interventions make the greatest difference?’, ‘What is our optimal contribution?’
One of the interesting challenges for a third sector organisation is whose voice is represented in framing and answering such questions, e.g. donors, beneficiaries, trustees, staff, volunteers. A charitable organisation I work with currently conducted a strategy review recently, inviting feedback from beneficiaries using surveys, focus groups etc. to find out what they struggle with and aspire to and what role they would want to see the organisation playing in helping them address or achieve these issues. The needs and aspirations that surfaced have been summarised as ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ or ‘they’ statements in clear and colloquial language, keeping the focus on what each individual as beneficiary wants to experience as a result of the organisation’s actions.
This is a sharp contrast with some experiences I’ve had in the past. In one instance, a third sector organisation I worked with set up a drop-in project providing advice and support for long-term unemployed people. The Local Authority provided funding using ‘number of people using the service’ as its key success criterion. Paradoxically, the more successful the service was in enabling local people to find employment, thereby reducing the number of people who needed to access the service, the more the service was deemed statistically by the Local Authority to be failing. A theory of change can help surface such outcomes and assumptions at an early stage, enabling more constructive dialogue and agreement between agencies and stakeholders.
I believe the potential for theory of change extends beyond third sector organisations aiming to articulate their vision, strategy, plans and reasons behind them. I’ve used similar methodologies to explore and articulate an organisation development strategy within a third sector organisation. We started by exploring a number of questions with diverse stakeholders and groups such as, ‘What kind of organisation are we trying to develop?’, ‘Where are we now?’, ‘Why are things as they are?’, ‘What drives or sustains how things are?’, ‘What matters most to people here?’, ‘Who or what influences change?’, ‘What would it take to achieve the changes?’ This enabled us to create a map showing goals, activities, assumptions and causal relationships.
The same principles can be applied at team and individual levels too, e.g. for leadership, coaching, mentoring, training and counselling purposes. It enables dialogue between different parties and keeps rationale and assumptions explicit. If assumptions are clear to all parties, they can be challenged and revised in light of different preferences, perspectives, realities and evidence. I’ve used adaptations of this approach with people and organisations where Christian beliefs have been held as important and integral, developing the model as a theology of change. A theology of change may surface and articulate e.g. God’s purpose, values, presence and activity in the world, the role of the Spirit and Christians, discerning a sense of ‘calling’.
In my experience, the language and methods of applying theory or change need to be adapted for different purposes and audiences. It represents a logical-rational paradigm that is likely to work well for some people and cultures but not so well for others. Using Honey & Mumford’s learning styles as one possible frame of reference, theory of change (as the name implies) may appeal most to people, teams or cultures with a theorist orientation. Reflectors may be attracted most by its emphasis on surfacing underlying assumptions, activists by the evidential dimensions and pragmatists by its focus on outcomes. Perhaps the key lies in using the principles it embodies flexibly and sensitively in the context of real human dialogue and relationship.
Strategic thinking is about keeping the big picture in view. It’s often about asking the right questions, questions that frame or reframe an issue and place it in a broader perspective. It’s about stepping back, raising awareness, challenging assumptions, discerning what’s most important. This demands listening to God, our environment, ourselves and each other.
In order to do this well, we need to develop an ability to step back from immediate detail, plans and activity. Imagine yourself with a camera. It’s about zooming out to see the wider landscape, the ‘what else’ that can go unnoticed. It’s often the bigger frame that makes sense of what we’re seeing when we zoom in. It provides context, a basis for meaning-making.
The value of stepping back mentally, metaphorically zooming out in this way, is that we can re-evaluate our priorities, our direction, what we’re spending time and resources on, how we’re approaching things, whether we’re focusing on the right things, whether we’re allowing ourselves to become distracted by things that are not adding optimum value.
One way to develop our strategic thinking ability is to jot down sample questions that can help draw the big picture into view. ‘What do our customers or beneficiaries value most?’, ‘What are our competitors planning and doing?’, ‘What are the major forces driving change in our environment or sector?’, ‘What challenges and opportunities are emerging over the horizon?’
Be open and curious. ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for our different stakeholders?’, ‘What do we do best?’, ‘What do we feel called to do?’, ‘Who are our potential allies?’, ‘What assumptions are we making?’, ‘What are we avoiding?’, ‘How are we constraining ourselves?’, ‘What might someone else see that we’re not seeing?’
Another way is to start with a day to day issue, perhaps something you’re working on at the moment. At an operational level, the key concern is how to do it well to achieve the desired results. It’s as if the frame has already been set. ‘This is what I need to do. I will spend my time, effort and resources on working out how best to achieve it, then do it.’
Now step back from the same issue a little and ask yourself or invite someone else to ask you some wider tactical questions. ‘What is it that makes this task so important?’, ‘What other ways could I achieve the same, or even better result?’, ‘How does what I’m doing dovetail with related tasks that others are doing?’, ‘How well does this serve our overall team goals?’
Take successive steps back until the questions you are asking draw the wider external environment and future considerations into account (as above). Now you are likely to be approaching a strategic level. The further you step back, the more research it is likely to entail. It’s about moving outwards from your normal frame of reference to consider wider issues that may prove pivotal.
What all these questions do so far is to develop an awareness of ‘what else is in the picture that we should take account of in our key decisions?’ In other words, they focus on the ‘what’. The next stage involves discernment, or the ‘so what’. What does all you’ve been thinking about, looking at, exploring and researching point towards that could be significant?
Facing multiple issues, knowns and unknowns, clarity and ambiguity, can feel bewildering. In light of this, moving forward may best involve working with others, drawing on shared thinking, experience, intuition, listening and prayer. ‘What are we hearing?’, ‘What should we pay attention to and what can we safely ignore?’
The final phase, the ‘now what’, involves making strategic decisions. These are the fundamental decisions that will form the basis of subsequent strategising and planning. The best decisions provide focus and clarity. ‘This is how the strategy will achieve our vision’, ‘This is what we will do and not do’, ‘This is how we will resource the organisation to achieve it.’
The process as a whole is about learning to plan with our eyes open. It’s about seeking to be open, exercising wise judgement and making sound decisions. In light of the fluid, rapidly changing and often unpredictable environments that many organisations are facing these days, strategic review and re-focus is now more often an on-going than periodic venture.
Nick is a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 18,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org