Does Your Theory of Change Matter If You Can’t Even Do It?

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Back in 2014, I got a great workplace birthday present. The organization I work for has a culture that in part orients around name tags, and one year I got to order a custom one. It’s still on my refrigerator:

At the time I wasn’t yet fully preoccupied with my current obsession – improving organizational work and culture by orienting around questions of feasibility. By feasibility, I don’t just mean whether is something possible once, or if we can design a business process that shows how a thing can be done.

By feasible I mean an implementation cycle that can be run every day by thousands of people with reasonably similar outputs in ways that feel meaningful, engaging, and worth coming back to do again the next day.

So when you’re working on a project and you get to that point of wondering what would really materially be different if you just chucked it into the void and you can’t come up with something, I don’t think this means that the theory of change is wrong so much as that the theory of implementation is faulty.

Let’s take a (maybe) absurd example to illustrate. Warning, this example is about bananas and I have never thought about them as much as I have in writing this passage.

Let’s say that I run a smoothie shop and concede that organic bananas do in fact make the best smoothie base, but I also acknowledge that the banana peel leaves a slight residue that can make the smoothie feel slightly chalky. Perhaps we posit that, if we can temperature control and subcutaneously test the banana peel alkalinity we will be able to only utilize the most perfect bananas for our smoothies. Great, take some samples and then test the ones that meet your criteria.

Now let’s assume that your smoothie shop only has one person staffed at a time and that, to prevent banana browning, you only want to sample bananas when the smoothie is to be made.

A stick figure rendition of the absurd scenario depicted above and below.

If you’re as popular as you think you would be as the best smoothie shop in town, is the change to create even more perfect smoothies feasible?

What might be true here is that your time sensitive customers who are just looking for the potassium boost and a healthier version of a milkshake don’t give two hoots about whatever chalkiness you claim to be protecting them from as you take several minutes longer per customer. You might even find that they go to the fast food place next door, thankful to be liberated from having to make a healthy choice because it takes too long for their schedule.

In terms of strategy we can talk about this in terms of trade offs, considering what to let go of in order to meet your widest base of needs, principles, or objectives while minimizing risk to others. The trick is here — a strategy left untested is just another theory. In order to know if the trade offs are the right ones, or if the intended impact are what’s happening, you have to lean in, do some self-assessment work, and determine whether those spots where you’re “making it work” are in fact working more and more with time, or whether they are consistently having to make it work. The former is enjoying the benefits of organizational learning and continuous improvement. The second is a warning sign of entropy which may go unnoticed until huge pieces of the work are falling out of place.

Perhaps we think it will be easier to repair the collapsing tower than to make modifications and improvements as we discover its structural weaknesses?