Journal Issue: Work and Family Volume 21 Number 2 Fall 2011
Eight Principles of the Theory of Change
The conceptual basis of When Work Works is a theory of change developed by Families and Work Institute after extensive consultations with scholars and practitioners who have successfully carried out change experiments. Eight principles inform this theory of change.
The change theory's first principle is to proceed in stages. Social and business change takes time and requires a long-term strategy that unfolds slowly, with each stage containing within itself the seeds of the next. The first stage is raising awareness; the second, changing behaviors; and the third, engaging people in action.
The second principle is to understand how the public frames the issue. Knowing in advance how people see the issue helps target change for maximum effectiveness. It also ensures against the inadvertent use of language or issues that trigger unnecessary opposition or backlash.
The third principle of the theory of change is to focus on action. Changing attitudes is not enough. It is important to be able to specify concrete steps when people say, "I get it. What do you want me to do?"
The fourth principle, that messages are critical, incorporates several ancillary lessons. One is that unexpected messages can get people's attention. An unexpected message causes people to take in information precisely because it is unexpected. Another related lesson is that the message should be based on solid research that spells out not only the benefits of change, but also the costs of no change—of not taking action. People change their opinions or actions when they see that the benefits of change can outweigh the costs of no change. This kind of cost-benefit analysis is what employers call "making a business case." A third related lesson is the need for messages to project into the future. It is easier for people to think about the present in new ways and to move beyond everyday realities and opinions when they are looking into an unknown future. The final lesson is the importance of tailoring different messages for different groups. One size does not fit all.
The fifth principle is that unexpected messengers also make a difference. Hearing messages from the usual messengers (for example, advocates talking about the importance of their advocacy issue) is predictable and easy to dismiss as self-interest. Hearing messages from unexpected messengers creates increased attention and involvement.
The sixth principle is to target the people who have the power to bring about change— to recognize, connect with, and assist them. It is essential first to define both the decision makers and those who influence them and then to target both groups—typically, public policy makers, businesses, professionals, the media, citizens, families, and employees— and finally to develop strategies to reach them effectively. Enabling people in diverse sectors to feel connected to a large change initiative and to learn from their successes and failures can be very sustaining.
The seventh principle of change is to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. The release of a new study or some event that captures the public's attention could lead to unexpected opportunities. It is critical to take advantage of an issue that has already engaged the public or key constituencies to show how it relates to the change effort.
The final principle of the theory of change is to plan in detail what outcomes to expect and to assess results and make adjustments all along the way. Goals should be built into the process from the very beginning. Continuing to assess progress in reaching these goals allows for ongoing mid-course corrections and a greater likelihood of achieving what is hoped for and expected.