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Fostering a learning and co-creation culture
by Changeroo
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This expert lens looks at the appropriate organisational culture for managing societal value creation.

ToC Thinking: A Process and Culture

A ToC is more than a product consisting of a diagram and a narrative. It is a process, mindset and culture. It represents a culture of constant analysis, critical reflection, co-creation, results management, a questioning attitude, and a mindset of continuous learning.

ToC thinking represents a strategic learning approach toward societal value creation. A process in which it is essential to create and explicate well-thought-through strategies, to engage stakeholders in forming these strategies, to understand the logic behind strategies in the context they operate in, to monitor and measure results, to gain insight in what does and doesn’t work and especially why it does or doesn’t, and to subsequently adapt and optimize strategies where necessary and scale up those that work.

ToC at the Centre of Learning on Societal Value Creation

When you seek to optimise societal value creation, then you are essentially strategising about your ToC, either implicitly or explicitly. Therefore, it’s the ToC at the centre of learning and adaptation. This implies the different management processes and tools that you employ for learning all revolve around the ToC.

Dhillon & VacaL. Dhillon & S. Vaca (2018) Refining Theories of Change. Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation, 14(3), Working with Assumptions in a Theory of Change Process. demonstrate this nicely when they write: “we believe a Theory of Change should be part of an integrated organisational tool system, while undergirding all other organizational tools. When changes are made to one tool, the potential effect on the others should be considered.”

ToC Thinking

Let’s look at a few of the dimensions associated to ToC thinking.

A Continuous Reflective Learning Process

ToC thinking is a necessity to incorporate learning and to adjust to changes in circumstances.

  • A ToC should be contextualised, since very few generic solutions exist that are robust under contextual change. This implies that ToCs may need to adapt in response to changes in the environment, such as changes in political arena, technological advancements, power shifts, changes in rule of law, etc. Indeed, there are many local and global aspects prone to change. Changes in context may also present opportunities. In fact, a ToC may have been working for years to build the network as to be able to take advantage of the favourable, but almost impossible to predict, circumstances such as the Arab spring. Once such an opportunity presents itself, the ToC moves to its next phase so to speak.
  • The need to learn and adapt also stems from how complex in nature change processes often are. This means you’re unlikely to get it right from the start. Your understanding of these processes will develop over time as you learn from your experiences. Similarly, over time your understanding about the effectiveness of different strategies may improve. Such growth in insight should be reflected in the adaptations to your ToC.
  • A refocus may be another reason for learning and adaptation. For example, intrinsic motivation within the organisation and funder priorities may change. Or another aspect of the problem becomes more of a priority. As a result goals, choices and priorities may transform as well.

Co-creation: Engage With Stakeholders

Change requires collaboration with many actors and many stakeholders hold knowledge, perspectives and resources you stand to benefit from. You generally won’t have all the necessary resources nor all the wisdom to develop and achieve your ToC just by yourself.

A (periodic) workshop to develop or critically examine your ToC adds to its quality, and using a facilitator experienced in ToC thinking can be an asset to such a workshop. Participation in this workshop from stakeholders is desirable to ensure the systematic consideration of their preferences, interests, and perspectives. It will stimulate your ToC not only to describe the perspective of your organisation and what it does, but to describe how change happens for the social system as a whole and to also include the context elements, activities, outputs, inputs and outcomes that your organisation can’t control but that do affect the success of achieving your vision of success.

Changes in Scope: Sphere of Influence

From time to time, the scope and main focus of your Theory of Action may change. In particular, programs that have complex aspects will need to be responsive to emerging conditions that may require different policy tools. They may need to use a range of tools simultaneously or focus at a particular time on some policy tools with a view to moving to other policy tools as the need arises. Or the different tools might be planned for different stages of the life of the program.

Indeed, scoping decisions can also be about what is in scope for a particular time period. That is, what outcomes might be achievable (within scope) within what time frames. Preparatory work may be under way for later outcomes while in the process of achieving earlier ones. Also you may want to seize opportunities to achieve in-scope outcomes as they arise rather than waiting until direct delivery of those outcomes becomes the main focus.

Institutionalising Learning

Institutionalising ToC thinking in your organisation is a must to move from a one-time exercise to an ongoing learning process.


  • Define clear and explicit core values, which offer boundaries and direction for implementation and experimentation.
  • Recruit support from senior management and funders for a learning approach, experimentation and risk-taking. It is recommendable to recruit such at an early stage.
  • Make people accountable and reward for learning instead of pre-set goals.
  • This calls for less detailed monitoring & evaluation ambitions and less detailed goals as such can reduce the willingness to share dilemmas and trust.
  • Practice complexity-aware monitoring & evaluation (USAID), meaning: pay attention to a broader range of outcomes, alternative causes from other actors and factors, and the full range of non-linear pathways of contribution.
  • Identify change leaders within the organisation. Make one or more individuals responsible for keeping your Changeroo account up to date and responding to stakeholders’ feedback.
  • Generate ownership of problem formulation and transparency through participation of stakeholders, especially front-line staff and end users.
  • Foster trust and psychological safety through trust building activities.
  • Be open and transparent about failure. Manage trade-offs: e.g., more external transparency may jeopardize internal transparency and trust-building.
  • Abercrombie et al.R. Abercrombie, K. Boswell & R. Thomasoo (2018) Thinking big: How to use theory of change for systems change. NPC: discuss the role of leaders:


  • Invest in the people’s capacities for ToC thinking. Such capacities include the ability to question oneself, critical thinking, dealing with uncertainties, communication skills, non-linear and complexity thinking, ability to acknowledge a diversity of perspectives, etc.
  • Incorporate developing these capacities in your ToC.
  • A deep and nuanced understanding of the local context within the team is a must.
  • Make sufficient resources available on a responsive basis, rather than scheduled basis.


  • Start each strategy meeting with the question whether there are any comments/new insights regarding the ToC. Give an update on progress.
  • Periodically organise a workshop together with stakeholders to reflect on the ToC.
  • Use program diaries in which implementing staff regularly writes down changes in local context, problems faced, engagements with key actors and likely future pathways for the programme, among other things (Valters, 2015).
  • Develop different and competing pathways or entire ToCs. Look for multiple intervention points and move among them dynamically. Experiment to find ‘the best one’.
  • Develop coherent visual representations of the situation analysis that enable systematic and group-based exploration of solutions. For example, capture bullet points from a key study and/or from those benefitting in posters that discussion groups can refer back to.

Theory of Change

  • Feed lessons learned back into your ToC. Place the ToC at the centre of learning and vice versa.
  • Make the learning agenda to strengthen and test your ToC explicit. Identify gaps in learning and follow up.
  • Ensure everyone understands the ToC and their own role in it.
  • Communicate your needs from the perspective of your ToC and thus of societal value creation.
  • Ensure the learning process you go through is well documented and accessible.

Build Upon Giants: External Learning Exercises

  • Co-create, offer stakeholders ways to give their input on your ToC and enable them to themselves to take the initiative to do so. One such channel could be Changeroo.
  • Bring in outside expertise by hiring a facilitator with specific sector/thematic knowledge.
  • Review and stay updated about existing research / literature.
  • Carry out visits to other initiatives to learn from what they are doing.
  • Collaborate with other initiatives to achieve your Vision of Success.

Ad) Building the Organisational Capacities

Organisational capacities are the organisation’s capacity toward ToC thinking and ways to effectively implement its Theory of Action. Such capacities include collective vision, effective governance, leadership, ability for strategic thinking, critical questioning, problem solving skills, dealing with uncertainties, ability to learn, communication skills, ability to acknowledge a diversity of perspectives, etc.

Developing these capacities is essential to the successful implementation and further development of your ToC. Therefore, some organisations incorporate full pathways in their ToC around fostering such capacities. Indeed, organisational capacities are essentially a specific type of input of a ToC.

The platform Managing for Impact offers a guide to build such organisational capacities.

The 5Cs framework distinguishes between five capabilities that together contribute to an organisation’s capacity to achieve its objectives in bringing about social change. It provides pointers for the evaluation of each of these capabilities:

  • The capability to act and commit
  • The capability to deliver on development objectives
  • The capability to adapt and self-renew
  • The capability to relate to external stakeholders
  • The capability to achieve coherence

Eight Steps to Successfully Introduce Change Consequent on Findings of an Evaluation

Eight steps to ensure you follow-up on an evaluation study:Based on J.P. Kotter & D.S. Cohen (2002) The heart of change: Real-life stories of how people change their organizations, Harvard Business Review School Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

  1. Create urgency – For change to take place, it helps if you have the support of most of your stakeholders. Develop a sense of urgency and inspire people to act. Make objectives real and relevant.
  2. Build the guiding team – Get the right people in place with the right emotional commitment, and the right mix of skills and levels to help lead the change process.
  3. Get the vision right – Identify the values that are central to the change. Get the team to establish a simple vision and clear strategy based on the findings and recommendations of the evaluation. Focus on the emotional and creative elements necessary to drive service and efficiency.
  4. Communicate for buy-in – Involve as many people as you possibly can and communicate your vision and strategies often and in a simple way. Appeal and respond to people’s needs. Have a clear message – make technology work for you.
  5. Empower action – Put in place a structure to facilitate change. Try to identify pockets of resistance to change and help these people to see what is needed and why. Remove barriers quickly and allow for constructive feedback and support from leaders. Recognise and reward those who make change happen.
  6. Create short-term wins – Set short-term objectives that are easy to achieve, with little room for failure. Complete current stages before starting new ones. Reward those who help you to meet your objectives.
  7. Don’t let up – Foster and encourage determination and persistence – encourage ongoing progress reporting and highlight achieved and future milestones. Analyse every achievement and ask yourself what went right and what needs improving.
  8. Make change stick – Tell success stories of change within your organisation. Reinforce the value of successful change via recruitment, promotion, and new change leaders. Weave change into the culture of the organisation.

Other Learning Resources

  • Valters, C. (2015) Theories of Change: time for a radical approach to learning in development. Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Available here.
  • Valters, C., Cummings, C. and Nixon, H. (2016) Putting learning at the centre: Adaptive development programming in practice. Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Available here.
  • Impact Management Programme on creating an organisational culture with learning at its core to improve impact.
  • USAID offers various resources on Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA), including a CLA Toolkit.