Actors, Factors, and Vectors of Change

Not all goals are amenable to linear change processes. Some prefer being nudged towards actualisation.

While there is a range of possible strategic styles and methods, the two contrasted in this post involve linear (logframe) and non-linear (vector-based) theories of change (ToC). These are illustrated in the header image above as the straight line arrow ‘path’ and the more versatile multidirectional ‘path’ of a chess knight.

The logframe and vector-based ToC approaches employ different strategies to plan and evaluate change programs. Programs that follow a more linear progression and require a step-by-step approach may be better suited for a Logframe approach. In contrast, the vector-based ToC approach is more adept at identifying and amplifying dynamic feedback loops and emergent patterns of change that arise within complex systems. This is especially relevant when the context of the program is volatile or unpredictable.

While both approaches recognise the involvement of actors and factors, one uses only a single ‘change vector’, while the other employs more than one, as required by variable circumstances.

The logframe ‘arrow’

A logframe (logical framework) approach to strategic planning typically focuses on defining specific outputs and outcomes that the organisation seeks to achieve, and then identifies the inputs and activities needed to accomplish those outcomes. This approach tends to be linear and assumes a cause-and-effect relationship between inputs and outcomes (hence the archery metaphor). It also tends to assume a stable operating environment, with the path between current and future states being a series of steps arranged in a generally ‘straight’ line.

The method is sometimes described as a form of ‘reverse engineering’, as it starts with defining a desired future state, and works backward to determine the steps, processes, inputs, and requirements to progress to the desired state from the current state.

Many non-profit organisations use the logframe approach to strategic planning and evaluation. Having defined the specific outputs and outcomes they wish to achieve, and the inputs and activities needed to achieve those outcomes, the board then uses KPIs to monitor progress towards the achievement of the specified outcomes and impact.

Several features of the logframe approach may appeal to non-profit strategy development:

  1. The logframe approach provides a clear and focused framework to help you define your goals and objectives and to identify the specific inputs and activities needed to achieve them. This can help ensure that you are working towards a specific vision, and can help avoid mission drift.
  2. The approach emphasises the importance of defining specific and measurable outcomes, which can help you to track progress and demonstrate impact to funders and other stakeholders. This can be especially important if you are dependent on external funding.
  3. Many donors and funders require charities to use the logframe approach to planning and evaluation, which can make it easier to secure funding and partnerships.
  4. The approach is a straightforward and relatively easy-to-use tool, which can make it more accessible for smaller or less resource-rich non-profit organisations.

While this approach can be a useful tool, it may not be as effective in complex or dynamic environments, where a more flexible and adaptive approach may be needed. That’s where the vector-based ToC comes in.

Vectors of adjacent possibles

The vector-based ToC is an approach to strategic planning and evaluation that focuses on understanding the various factors and actors that contribute to a particular outcome or change. It borrows ideas from dynamical systems theory and behavioural economics (nudge) theory, to take advantage of the fluctuations at the margin between existing patterns (current state) that are less viable, and new or emerging patterns (the desired future state). The objective is essentially to settle the system into a new relatively stable state that reflects updated strategic objectives.

More than one change vector can be used to promote progress toward a particular strategic goal, and this multi-pronged approach can also allow for the discontinuation of activity related to interventions that do not show signs of successfully pre-conditioning achievement of the ultimate goal. This more flexible or agile approach is illustrated in the following chart.

A ‘vector’ is formally defined as a variable quantity, such as force, that has size and direction. The term has various interpretations depending on the context in which it is used (see also the descriptive chart below). In aviation, it refers to a chosen course or direction for motion, as of an aircraft. This is perhaps the closest meaning we can give the term when discussing theories of change.

In her 2022 paper explaining the vector-based approach, Linda Doyle from the Cynefin Company states:
“Adjacent possibles are one step away from where you currently are: they are the first stepping stone. In the context of vector theory of change adjacent possibles are data points that are further along in a desired change direction than other data points. We want to amplify what is happening there by shifting other data points in that direction”.

The header image above contrasts the use of adjacent possibles in the vector-based approach with the arrow of change implied by the logframe approach.

Using the vector-based ToC, stakeholder communities are invited to consider “How do we create more stories (or narrative data) like the ones people have identified as positive, and fewer like the ones people felt were negative?” These nudges use small interventions and leverage points to alter the decision-making context and thereby encourage behavioural change. Progressively new adjacent possibles emerge and permit the next stage of the strategy to unfold, moving the community ever closer to its desired future state.

Key features of the vector-based ToC include:

  1. Emphasis on the importance of understanding the social, political, economic, and environmental context in which change is occurring.
  2. Recognition that social change is complex and involves many different actors and factors that are interdependent, and which interact in complex ways.
  3. Employing a systems thinking approach, which involves understanding the various components of a system and how they interact with each other to produce change.
  4. Emphasis on the importance of ongoing feedback and learning, as the organisation seeks to understand how various factors and actors interact to produce change.
  5. The community of interest or stakeholder groups affected by the underlying issues addressed by the goal are engaged in deciding and implementing the next steps (co-creation).

Descriptions of the terms ‘actors’, ‘factors’, and ‘vectors’ as employed in the context of the vector-based ToC are provided in the chart below.

Steps involved in using the vector-based ToC include:

  1. Clearly define the issue or problem that the organisation is seeking to address, and seek to understand the social, political, economic, and environmental context in which it occurs.
  2. Identify the various factors and actors that contribute to change, including individuals, organisations, policies, and social norms.
  3. Map the relationships and interdependencies between the actors and factors to understand how they interact with each other to produce change.
  4. Identify the leverage points for change, which are the areas where small changes can have a large impact on the overall system.
  5. Based on your understanding of the various factors and actors that contribute to change and the leverage points for change, develop strategies and interventions that are tailored to the specific context and address the root causes of the issue.
  6. Continuously monitor and evaluate progress, using feedback and learning to adjust strategies and interventions as needed.

Overall, the vector-based theory of change provides a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to strategic planning and evaluation, compared with the linear and often oversimplified logframe approach. By focusing on understanding the complex and dynamic nature of social change, non-profit organisations can develop more effective and sustainable solutions to the issues they aim to address.

The vector-based ToC is an approach to strategic planning and evaluation that is adaptive to changes happening in the environment which may impede or otherwise affect your intended strategic change. It also challenges assumptions about the homogeneity of stakeholder perspectives, or of board and stakeholder viewpoints. In light of this, the approach encourages you to take account of human nature, and the limits to rationality which may impede support for, and engagement with your strategy.

Mix and match for ‘best fit’

Several key similarities and differences between these two approaches are outlined in the two charts below:

In any non-profit strategy, it is likely that there will be goals that are more amenable to non-linear approaches as well as goals for which a logframe approach is more suitable. Neither approach may be suitable for all goals.

From the perspective of a non-profit board, the logframe approach may be useful in situations where the organisation needs to achieve specific outcomes within a set timeframe, and where measurable outcomes are important for demonstrating impact to funders and other stakeholders. The vector-based approach may be more useful in situations where the issue is complex and rapidly changing, and where a more flexible and adaptive approach is needed to address the root causes of the issue.

Ultimately, the choice of approach to each goal or aspiration will depend on the specific needs and context of your non-profit organisation.

See also:

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