I often ask myself, how did we deliver projects before we started to use a Theory of Change? 

If you’ve worked in a charity or a grassroots organisation, you might be familiar with this mapping framework. It explores how and why a desired change is going to happen within a specific context. There are a few ways to do a Theory of Change. We like the outcomes-focused approach at Outlandish because it complements how we work, and it’s nice and straightforward. It has three main areas: the final goal, the outcomes, and the activities. 

What are the benefits of using a Theory of Change?

We use a Theory of Change as part of our kick-off meeting for both commercial and internal projects. Here’s why we’re big fans:

It establishes what the entire team is working towards

We like to collaborate with our clients, rather than form a top-down supplier-client relationship. Our approach to projects reflects this because we’re all on the same team and have a shared responsibility of achieving the goal. 

A clear deliverable gives everyone shared understanding and manages expectations

In the Theory of Change exercise, we collectively articulate and agree what we were going to deliver.

Once the Theory of Change is agreed, if a new team member joins we can communicate to them clearly what we’re aiming to achieve. Similarly, clients can do the same to stakeholders, managers and colleagues. 

We can maintain focus on the end game 

During the project cycle, we can ask if requests and decisions are conducive to the Theory of Change’s final goal. If they’re not, we know that there’s not much point in spending time on them.

It helps us to measure whether or not our project has been a success 

As much as we’d love to solve world hunger, poverty, or inequality, we are not going to achieve this in a few sprints. Instead, we frame the Theory of Change final goal exercise as ‘How will this make the world a better place?’ This is something that we can reflect on as we complete a phase of work and look back.

What do we do in a Theory of Change workshop?

The most time-consuming and challenging part of the exercise is establishing the final goal. This is normal and to be expected: it takes time to collectively agree where we’re aiming for. I remember a kick- off meeting when we asked ‘What’s the final goal?’ and each member of the client team gave us completely different answers. This spurred a useful conversation – it cleared up assumptions between them which was a huge relief at the start of the project, and it got us off to a great start.  

After this, we establish how we’re going to achieve our final goal by talking about the outcomes, which are the changes or achievements that we need to make. These can range from ‘users can navigate the site easily’ to ‘client has ownership of the website’. There is room for creativity in this part of the exercise, and there are usually outcomes for us and the client. There will be different roles among the team, so establishing who needs to do what allows us to prepare properly. It also clears up the risk of huge jumps in logic which otherwise can easily happen.

Image of two people looking at a blackboard with lots of fancy formulae, and a step in a middle that says 'Then a miracle occurs'
Actual scenes from before we did a Theory of Change. Just kidding, it’s a great image to show jumps in logic that can happen. Image credit: Sidney Harris

Lastly, we define the activities. These are measurable and directly feed into the outcomes. Some examples are ‘run a user testing session’ or ‘use WordPress as our CMS.’ The activities serve as a handy list of things to be done. 

If this sounds like a lengthy process, it’s because it is. We usually spend between two to three hours as part of our kick-off meeting running this exercise. However, sometimes we just don’t have the time. In this case, we still establish a final goal. Quick turnaround projects still need planning and a conversation about what is going to be delivered by the end of the 24 hours/short sprint. Don’t be tempted to skip the final goal – lack of time doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be strategic. If anything, it requires more strategy. 

As an organisation that runs and deliver projects continuously, we wholeheartedly recommend kicking off a project with a Theory of Change. If you’ve already started a project and find yourself stuck with the direction or have lost motivation, consider spending at least 15 minutes to articulate your final goal to remind yourself and others why you’re doing it. Want to find out more about how we do it or if we could help you? Just get in touch with hello[at]outlandish.com