Theory of Systemic Change and Action

Last updated Mar 7, 2023 | Originally published Mar 7, 2023

Theories of Change are one of the fundamental tools of changemakers and program evaluation (Mackinnon, 2006). However, when addressing wicked problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973), theories of change are too reductive and linear to properly account for the systemic phenomena, structures, and dynamics that perpetuate the issues we’re trying to address (Murphy & Jones, 2020).

Theories of Systemic Change and Action (ToSCA) are a systemic design tool that combine theories of change with systemic understanding. The result is a theory of change that is useful for understanding, communicating, and evaluating systemic change projects.

Here’s a rough guide to develop a ToSCA:

  1. Model the system (e.g., with causal loop diagrams; Kim, 1992).
  2. Develop systemic strategies from the model.
  3. Reorganize the modelled phenomena. From left to right:
    1. Capability building and resource mobilization for the initiative (Inputs)
    2. Inteventional activities the initiative will take on (Activities)
    3. Immediate outputs of those activities (Outputs)
    4. Results of those outputs on the overall system (Outcomes)
    5. Downstream effects of those outcomes on higher-system structures (Impacts)
  4. Reiterate on step 3 as necessary.

The resulting diagram will look somewhat like an iceberg model (Stroh, 2015, p. 46] on its side: visible events and behaviour are on the left, while the actual patterns and structures in the system fall to the right.

The ToSCA can then be simplified as necessary to suit different needs. For instance, if presenting the model briefly to a potential funder, you may want to collapse major feedback loops into one element on the model with a “loop” icon. This way you can still show inputs and outputs on that loop while obscuring the complexity within it for the purposes of the presentation.