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Theory of Change


Recently, I engaged in a short discussion in a comment section of a blog post titled “For effective sustainability results, focus on systems and processes, not targets or goals.” (link) written by Simon Wild.

Now I want to share a short summary of that article and the subsequent discussion, and that’s going to lead us to another article titled “Theory of Change” by Aaron Swartz.


So, in his post, Simon Wild actually expands on the ideas put forward by James Clear (link), who wrote that having goals is not enough to achieve success. In his own words:

“I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.”

What does Clear mean with “systems”? How are they different to goals? He explains:

“If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.”

Personally, I thought that this may be a cool play on words, but how deep of an insight is it? I was not entirely sold on this concept, so I wrote this comment on Simon Wild’s post:

“I think that goals are a helpful TOOL. But they are only helpful if we use them wisely. For example, if your major goal is to run a marathon, that will only be useful if you follow up with a lower level goals: to run 10 miles every other day, for example. James Clear calls that “Your system”, which is your training schedule for the month. Whatever. You can call it anything that rings true to you.

So, completely ignoring your goals and focusing only on your system actually means that you focus on the lowest level goals, on a moment by moment basis. For instance, if you are a professional basketball player, you don’t think about the game next week – instead, you stay focused on your practice that you are doing RIGHT NOW. You stay present. Your current goal is to practice free throws. So, you stay focused on shooting free throws.

If you do this, then your current happiness is not reduced.”

The last sentence above is referring to James Clear’s statement that goals reduce your current happiness. As I explained, that’s true only if you lose your presence and constantly ponder about the future. Simon Wild agreed with that, but then he continued:

“I guess what I was postulating was whether a long term goal in relation to sustainability, like zero carbon by 2030, is something that drives us to long term change? Or is creating systems of change that focus on the task that is needed today going to be more effective in the long run?”

This was my answer to him:

“As I see it, this is not an either-or option. Having a “zero carbon by 2030” goal is absolutely useless if we don’t follow up with lower level goals, or if you prefer James Clear’s terminology, with a system for realizing that goal. It’s always both: the goal, and the system.

System alone won’t be of much use either. “Creating systems of change that focus on the task that is needed today” may do some good, but will not go very far.

For example, the system that we set up may be some carbon tax law. If you are a car company and your cars produce more CO2 than a certain threshold, then your product gets additional tax. OK, great. The companies will either work to reduce CO2 footprint of their cars, or their cars will cost more, fewer people will buy them, and the effect will be similar.

But, if you don’t have a higher goal, then what do you do next? How do you convince people that this carbon tax is not the final destination, if you don’t even have a higher goal to point to? You would have to continually come up with newer and newer systems, and continually to gather support for their implementation. The real danger is, that you may stray off the path toward sustainability during that process.

You can’t hit a target that you don’t see. That’s why long term goals are important, too.

P.S.: Also read Aaron Swartz’s (R.I.P.) post titled “Theory of Change” on his blog”

I have since embraced the concept of “systems”, as I realized that they include not only your lower level goals, but the entire spectrum of things that you consciously do or set up in order to achieve your main goal. Your system as a runner is not only your training schedule for the month; part of your system is also your running buddy who trains with you and gives you additional motivation, or your portable music player that you use while running. Your system is not only your training schedule itself, but also the format in which you keep track of your training schedule (could be a calendar, a spreadsheet, a diary).

So, James Clear was onto something after all:

“Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.”

It’s always both: the goal, and the system.


Aaron Swartz. Photo: Fred Benenson/

Aaron Swartz. Photo: Fred Benenson/

Now we’re going to jump to the blog post written by Aaron Swartz, which I have already mentioned above. Its title is Theory of Change and it inspects two different ways in which you can tackle a problem.

The first way he calls a “theory of action”: you act forwards from where you are, in the direction of your goal. Swartz gives an example of a professional writer who thinks that the size of the U.S. defense budget should be decreased, so he does what he knows best: he writes a book on this subject.

The other strategy is a “theory of change”:

“A theory of change is the opposite of a theory of action — it works backwards from the goal, in concrete steps, to figure out what you can do to achieve it.”

So, if we want a decrease in the defense budget, we ask ourselves: how do we achieve that? The answer: a majority of the House of Representatives and of the Senate has to vote for it and then the President has to sign it.

Then we go one level lower; we ask ourselves: what motivates politicians to support something? What would motivate us, if we were politicians? Swartz gives us some suggestions:

“Well, on the one hand, there’s what you think is right. Then there’s what will help you get reelected. And finally there’s peer pressure and other sort of psychological motivations that get people to do things that don’t meet their own goals.”

Then we go another level lower and inspect all of these suggestions, one by one. We may come up with a strategy of how to persuade politicians that cutting the defense budget is the right thing for the country. Or we may organize a constituency in their districts that would demand cutting the defense budget.

I believe you now have an idea of where this is going: we continually go to lower and lower levels, until we reach something that we are capable to do without much trouble.

Then we do it. And since we’ve already devised the whole blueprint for change, the path toward our goal is straightforward (unless new obstacles arise).

If you are interested in more thoughts from Aaron Swartz on social change then also watch this video.