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I’m back! It’s been 3 months since the last Ko Lab, which was written en route to Bali for a long overdue break. Though it was a short holiday, I deliberately kept the pause button on the Ko Lab because I wanted to give myself space to reflect on where next for this newsletter.

In my mind, ‘Series 1’ covered my time as Acting CEO at Leadership Victoria whilst juggling ColourSpace and Curiosity Journals. It became my creative outlet for capturing ideas, observations, and lessons learned that reflect me as ‘Scott’ rather than my various titles. Ultimately, this helped me practice the ability to hold different ideas ‘lightly’; to take lessons learned from the disparate areas of my life and apply them elsewhere. In capturing them via the Ko Lab, I hoped it could be of value to others as well.

So where to for Series 2?

Well, some of the feedback I’ve received was a desire for greater depth and focus on single topics, which is great to hear as it resonates with how I’ve been feeling. The Ko Labs / articles I’ve enjoyed writing the most are ones where I’ve been able to take single concepts and tried to push them further, such as exploring the paradoxes of leadership or the Proximity to Intent model.

Thus in this next series for Ko Lab, my goal is to experiment with going deeper on single topics, which is coincidentally the segue way to the topic of this Ko Lab!

Theory of Change

For those who are unfamiliar with the term ‘Theory of Change‘, it’s a methodology used predominantly by social enterprises, NFPs, and charities to describe the causal link between how a series of activities results in social or environmental change. Typically, how it works is we first identify long-term goals and outcomes, then map backwards to identify the sequence of interventions needed to get there.

Take ColourSpace for example; this is essentially our Theory of Change:

  1. Ultimately, we believe that when people and communities (both social and work) are healthy, they can thrive, be resilient, and support each other meaningfully.
  2. To achieve this health and wellbeing, we need a holistic approach, one that engages our mind and all of our senses in a variety of ways.
  3. Art is a uniquely human creation that can help people and communities with this approach. In communities, art can be used to capture stories, bring people together, and create employment opportunities. For individuals, art can be used to spark imagination, express emotions, or present new ideas and perspectives. The World Health Organisation even synthesised a heap of research on the contribution of art to health.
  4. Thus ColourSpace’s intervention is to make art accessible for everyone, everywhere. The main way we’re doing this is by turning offices and shared spaces into galleries.
  5. However, to achieve this vision, we need a thriving, diverse artistic community sharing lots of voices and stories. Artists, especially emerging ones, need more exposure generating more sales and participating in multiple networks to go from surviving to thriving.
  6. That’s why ColourSpace sources all of our art from – and shares our revenue with – local, emerging artists and communities.

Sounds good? Well… I’m about to get a little sacrilegious: I don’t think I can hand on heart prove that this works as a theory.

The application of theory

The reason I’m calling myself out isn’t to dunk on my own business, but because I wonder if there might be a ‘trap’ in how the Theory of Change is used as a tool for creating and measuring social change.

The application of a good theory – at least in the scientific realm – should not only be able to predict outcomes, it can be used to create even more opportunities for positive impact. For instance, Newton’s theory of gravity lead to the discovery of the speed of light and the discovery of Neptune.

The Theory of Change as presented above maps backwards from the outcome to the intervention. Thus it stands to reason that we should be able to map it forwards as well; that if we applied ColourSpace’s Theory of Change into any new environment (such as another city), then we should achieve a similar outcome.

However for that to hold true, we would need verifiable, repeatable evidence that demonstrates this causal link. That’s not to say ColourSpace hasn’t created impact for our customers or for the artists we represent (because we have) but aside from being able to report on the quantitative revenue we’ve shared with artists, all other evidence is difficult to collect and anecdotal at best. This isn’t a challenge unique to ColourSpace, and is something I covered in Ko Lab 8.

Thus the ‘trap’ I’m referring to is that by conflating ‘impact’ with ‘theory’, it may create a false sense of causality and certainty in social spaces that are far more complex. A lot of ink is spilled (and much funding given) to help social enterprises and NFPs create and maintain a Theory of Change but I wonder if that effort is a) A distraction and / or b) Inhibit organisations from being adaptive.

Theory Hypothesis of Change

Naturally, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be trying to capture our impact – because getting any data is an important step in trying to help us understand what impact we’re having – however what I am saying is that there are limitations in how we can capture that data, which subsequently influence the effectiveness of the theory. At best, what we have is a hypothesis, a proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.

The more I think about this, the more I wonder if framing impact work as a ‘Hypothesis of Change’ may be more useful. By thinking about everything we do as a hypothesis, it forces us to hold our ideas a bit more lightly, to be more experimental in our thinking, and to create smaller feedback loops that help us adapt and iterate on public value work more rapidly.

I wonder if that also takes the pressure away from social enterprises, NFPs, and charities to justify and ‘prove’ the work that they do is having an impact, allowing them to instead focus on figuring out how to sustainably create social impact.

For my friends in the public value / social impact landscape, what do you think? Do you feel that there’s too much emphasis on the Theory of Change? Would reframing it to a ‘Hypothesis of Change’ help contribute to the social impact sector? Would love to know your thoughts.

In closing

If you enjoyed this Ko Lab, I’d really appreciate it if you shared it with a friend or two you think would get a kick out of this. You can send them here to sign up. Time permitting, I’ll try and make it the most engaging and thought-provoking newsletter you get!

And if you come across anything you’d like to ‘Ko Lab’ on, send it my way! I’m equally keen to learn about and share new perspectives and thoughts.

Have a great week!

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