Currently reading: “Leveraging Multiple Theories of Change to Promote Reform” (Kezar & Holcombe, 2019)

I am attending a course on “leading educational change”, run by two Norwegian centres for excellence in education, iEarth and BioCEED. The course brings together people working on educational change in very different roles: teachers, administrators, deans, network coordinators, and it’s a great opportunity to connect with people and to do some really focussed thinking on how to change things we’ve always wanted to change! And to do some serious reading of really interesting articles. One of the assigned readings is the article “Leveraging Multiple Theories of Change to Promote Reform: An Examination of the AAU STEM Initiative” by Kezar & Holcombe (2019), which I’ll summarise in the following, because it is a really fascinating and new-to-me perspective on how project planning can be understood, and should be happening.

First of all, there is such a thing as a “theory of change”. A theory of change describes a specific perspective on how and why changes in complex systems happen, and it can be used both to understand current or past changes as well as plan future changes. There are many different theories of change that are commonly used, focussing on different mechanisms and contexts and looking at the change process from very different perspectives. Six main sets of theories of change are

  • scientific management: in a very rational, planned, controlled approach, resources are strategically assigned to grow certain activities to further an agenda, and thus change an organisation; e.g. strengthening a new initiative by assigning service credits
  • evolutionary: the “ecosystem” in question is seen as influenced by other systems in a changing world around it, which can lead to changes happening, for example, due to fear of missing out, or to protect the system from outside influences
  • cultural: traditions, shared visions and sagas are created and negotiated, and this changes interactions between people, leading to changes in the whole system
  • social cognition: the organism itself is able to learn based on arguments and evidence, and mindsets are changed in feedback loops
  • political: power and status/funding are distributed to elevate the groups doing the desired work, and buy-in of important stakeholders is considered
  • institutional theory: the administrative frameworks and norms inside and outside the organisation, e.g. accreditation, funding bodies, disciplinary organisations, shape boundary conditions and are thus the driver of change; there is competition and less successful institutions mimic more successful ones

In some cases, a specific theory of change is assumed to fully explain the change desired or observed in a system. But in most cases, it just sheds light on it from a very specific angle, and using more than one theory of change simultaneously would be helpful to more fully understand what is going on, or to make sure to pull all relevant levers. Kezar & Holocombe (2019) describe one such initiative, where several theories of change were leveraged to improve teaching across different departments. The theories of change that were discussed in the proposal for the project are more specifically defined than the six main sets of theories of change described in the article and summarised above:

  • systems theory: all parts of a system need to act together to create positive change. To improve teaching, not just the teachers need to get better, but they also need to be supported by the university, appropriate facilities must be available, teachers need to be incentivized to spend time on teaching, …
  • organisational learning: individuals learn and together change the way the system works, structures at the organization can influence how information flows and knowledge is put to use
  • network theory: considers how information and behaviour spread and coalitions form to minimise risk/maximise outcome for the individual, depending on how people get the chance to meet and connect
  • institutional theory: about how influence and status is used to change institutional norms, and prestige is aspired to

Using several theories of change simultaneously can support the design of specific activities or programmes (or retrospectively help understand what happened), and more generally there are synergies that can purposefully be leveraged.

Let’s take, for example, annual meetings (which we all know and love, but mostly do because that’s just what is done. Who knew there were so many different functions they could fulfill if designed correctly?). Looking at the project through an institutional theory lens, the annual meetings gave participants the opportunity to learn from, and meet with, the prestigious partner organisations. Inviting everybody into stimulating and significant venues, and bringing in highly-esteemed guest speakers leveraged the influence of prestigious personalities and institutions on participants. From an organisational learning perspective, the meetings led to sharing of information and experiences, which resulted in adaptation of those new practices in several new places. From a systems theory perspective, the meetings were organised to reinforce the framework that was being established, by using it as a guiding structure and always referring back to relevant documents. And lastly from a network theory perspective, the meetings provided opportunities for informal and formal meetings and bonding situations in both random and planned groups.

But also beyond specific activities, theories of change can be thought together in order to create synergies. For example network theory and organisational learning: Buildingof  knowledge and skills within organisations (organizational theory) can be supported by creating networks between organisations in which knowledge and experiences can be shared, or where learning can happen together (network theory). But there can also be conflicts between different approaches: For example if competition between organisations is fostered as a motivational tool in institutional theory where all is about status, this can hinder or prevent cooperation and learning from each other, which might be a goal from an organisational learning and/or network theory position. In the project described in the article, this did happen and was only discovered and understood after the fact.

I found this article really eye-opening in the sense of seeing the potential in considering multiple theories of change simultaneously rather than one at a time. Reading about concrete examples of where multiple theories of change act to create synergies and where they might negate each other really drove home the message that it is absolutely fundamental to have a good idea of which theories of change should be the basis of a planned change process (rather than just curating a collection of activities that all might make sure in and of themselves, but maybe not so much when taken together), and make sure that all activities are aligned with those theories, or at least not in conflict with any of them. This sounds like a really basic “duh!” kind of thought, but as someone who has always relied on communities of practice to explain everything I’m trying to do, I will definitely widen my approach, and highly recommend you read this article if you haven’t thought about these things yet!


Kezar, A., & Holcombe, E. (2019). Leveraging Multiple Theories of Change to Promote Reform: An Examination of the AAU STEM Initiative. Educational Policy. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1177/0895904819843594

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