Developing a Theory of Action

June 22, 2020

In Episode 4 of The Bright Morning Podcast, I referenced a theory of action. I coached Jill through the initial steps to create a draft of a theory of action to lead folks in her district towards having conversations about racial inequities. In my coaching and consulting with leaders, I often guide them to create theories of action, because these are invaluable blueprints for how to make strategic change. If you’re not familiar with what a theory of action is, or how it’s useful, or how to create one, read on.  

What is a “Theory of Action”?

A theory of action is a hypothesis about what will happen when a set of strategies is implemented. Developing a theory of action requires using critical judgment about which strategic actions will lead to what desired results. It is the process of connecting what we plan to do with what we hope to get.

Why Create a Theory of Action?

Many organizations face an overwhelming number of challenges and limited resources, including limited time. As a result, we often generate lists of strategies and responses to a problem, but we don’t develop a core approach to hold these strategies together. Developing a theory of action pushes us to prioritize and go deep with a few intentional strategies which is usually more productive than doing a whole bunch of things.

A theory of action helps us be intentional. In the process of creation, we’re pushed to articulate why we’re taking a set of actions and to name the results and impact we expect. When a group collaborates on creating a theory of action, this pushes them to play out a strategy. For example, if a school’s leadership team is committed to creating racial equity, then articulating a theory of action requires the team to articulate the actions and subsequent changes that will eventually lead to those desired outcomes. A theory of action pushes us to be specific and concrete.

When a team creates a theory of action together, it’s more likely that all members will be on the same page about a strategy. At the end of the school year, team members can say, “These are the actions we took… these are the reasons we took them… here’s what we wanted to happen… and now we are reflecting on how it worked and the results we got.” A theory of action can help members of a team align their actions to a larger plan.

How to Create a Theory of Action

A theory of action can be developed by an individual (a coach, department head, or site leader) or by a team. Individuals may want to create theories of action for their scope of work. Teams can create them to address the problems they share joint ownership over.

First the team identifies the key actions that might add address the problem. These actions should be the high leverage (they have the potential to have the greatest impact). To determine the highest leverage actions, the team should discuss how each proposed action might bring about the desired changes. For example, let’s say a school is committed to creating equitable classrooms. The leadership team proposes having a shared text that all staff will read and discuss during the school year. The next step is to discuss how reading that book might actually result in creating equity in the classroom.

A theory of action is always stated in “If…Then…” phrasing. This emphasizes the process. The concept is If we do this thing…Then we will see that happen…which will lead to this…and which will result in that outcome that we want to see.

It’s important to focus on one or a few key strategies that the team is committed to implementing and to following through on. When there are too many strategies, they are rarely fully implemented.  

Visual processors might appreciate sketching out a diagram showing how key strategies will lead to desired changes.

Here’s the basic template to use for creating a theory of action. If you’re working with a team, you could write these on a shared Google doc so that folks can contribute or on chart paper if you’re in person together!

GOALS or DESIRED OUTCOMES

Note: You could have between 1-3 actions in this section

IF we take this action…   And IF we also take this action…   And IF we also take this action…  

THEN ___ will happen…   Which will THEN lead to…

Which will RESULT in the increased likelihood…

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