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How A Theory Of Change Can Help With Innovation

Updated: Jun 6

If you work in the social sector you've no doubt been exposed to Theories of Change. In this article Tracey Newman (she/her) and I explore how having a Theory of Change can supercharge an organisation's ability to deliver impact through innovative approaches and programmes.

First, what is a Theory of Change? 

A theory of change is a tool that maps out an organisation's strategy for creating positive social change in a logical, easy to understand visual format. It outlines the steps from goal or mission, through expected outcomes, measurable outputs, and required activities or inputs.

Developing a theory of change allows organisations to test the logic of their approach and ensure each element in the chain is linked to progress towards the desired impact. It provides a "north star" to guide strategic decision making and resource allocation.

Theories of Change help focus innovation efforts 

With clarity on the specific changes they aim to create, organisations can use their theory of change as a framework for innovation. Any new ideas or programmes can be assessed for how directly they support intended outcomes.

This allows prioritisation of ideas most likely to lead to the desired change - rather than falling in love with ideas for other reasons. Limited resources are focused where they will have greatest effect.

Making evaluation easier 

Understanding the expected relationship between activities, outputs and outcomes/impacts provides a clear framework for evaluation. Organisations can regularly assess whether anticipated changes occurred and learn from this.

This continuous learning and ability to adapt based on what works, is key to the success of any innovation effort. Theories of change build accountability and evaluation into innovative programmes from the start.

Improving communication & engagement 

Visual theories of change communicate organisational purpose and strategy simply and clearly. This aids engagement by helping others understand how activities create impact.

Good communication is vital for bringing people along on the innovation journey. Youth Options in South Australia saw fundraising improvements through clearly articulating their work's outcomes using a theory of change.

In summary, theories of change underpin innovation by providing focus, facilitating learning, and improving communication - all essential ingredients for delivering social impact at scale. Don't overlook their potential to improve your innovative capacity.

Organisations hesitant to change may not see the benefits, but theories of change can uncover new strategic insights and opportunities for greater impact through innovation when implemented effectively.

Do you have a theory of change in your organisation, and have you used it for aiding innovation? I'd love to hear your experiences in the comments.

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