Theory of Change

By Bill Veltrop


What is our vision for society? How do we move from our shared current state of dissatisfaction with governance to a wise democracy? What needs to be in place in order to stay on course and continue to learn and grow together, given change is inevitable?

Change theory is an important component needing stakeholder agreement when new systems are being discussed, designed and implemented. It is also an inherent dimension in fields related to social and political sciences, as well as business and organizational consulting. David Gleicher originated the formula in the early ‘60s and it has been used and adapted by others since that time. The formula below is adapted from the original.

The formula is VxDxF>X.  V= a shared and compelling vision of the future and a broad strategy for getting there.  D=a requisite level of shared pain and dissatisfaction with the current state.  F=a clear first step toward the shared vision. X=the perceived cost of taking that first step.

If V, D, or F = 0, then the desired lasting change will not happen.  If X, the perceived cost, is based on unexamined fears, change is unlikely.  Bottom line, if lasting systemic change is your game as an organizational leader, change agent or activist, it is important to work effectively with all four variables.

In addition to the equation, which focuses on whether there will be movement toward the compelling shared vision, there is another lens important for the change architect to master. The 3-Span Bridge Lense helps us understand that, for a system to develop new and enhanced systemic capacities, 3 distinct capacity-building spans need to be in place, and each one needs to be sufficiently strong.

            Expertise – both the expertise that the system needs to weave into the fabric of its operations and also the special expertise to support the system’s process of growing that expertise.

            Infrastructure – whatever new roles and processes and systems are required to develop, grow, and evolve the desired systemic capacity.  For example, feedback loops designed not only to guide and reinforce, but also to produce generative ripples can be very important to develop and propagate new capacities.

            Resources – increased leadership attention and some dedicated funds are normally required when developing new and enhanced organizational capacities, especially in the early stages.