Owning your theory of change

Plastic beach

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

In the past, some of the most passionate change agents have fought tirelessly to remedy the effects of a broken system. We try to connect homeless people to food. We clean up plastic off a beach. We create an environmental non-profit to clean up the environmental impacts of a for-profit company. We offer food and medical equipment to those in poverty.

This is admirable work. And in many cases it is absolutely necessary to reduce suffering and destruction.

But it isn’t necessarily change work. It is clean-up work. It can bring a temporary respite to terrible conditions, yes. But it often can’t actually lead to different outcomes over the long-term. Its effects won’t be long-lasting and sustainable. It doesn’t cause change, it just makes the status quo a bit more bearable.

Take for example, cleaning plastic off a beach. This is great work. I don’t want plastic on any beach I’m walking on and I applaud those who are willing to clean it up for us. But what we really need are new systems and behaviors that eliminate plastic and littering in the first place. This is the only thing that will solve the problem. Cleaning up a beach after the fact makes it more hospitable for us and all the life forms that call it home. But it also obscures the fact that we have a problem. It can dampen our understanding that deeper change is necessary.

In other words, when possible, as change agents we come up with interventions that change the systems rather than simply put a Band-Aid on their negative effects.

In many cases, the effects of this change work will be less noticeable and immediate than Band-Aid work. We won’t be able to claim immediate victory. But over the long-term, if implemented correctly, ultimately they will be more impactful and meaningful.

This is owning your theory of change. Rather than needing visible effects to guide and assure us, we do our best to anticipate long-term systemic effects. We take the risk of doing less tangible work. We get less instant gratification, less praise and acknowledgment from our peers, less certainty about oour work.

And we also make more meaningful, long-lasting change. Is it worth it?

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