11/21/2016 08:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Is Your Theory Of Change?


By Andrew J. Hoffman, Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise and Education Director at the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan

We all have a theory of change. When we ask our partner to change dinner plans for the evening, when we approach our professor to change a grade, when we work for a company and try to shift strategy, we are working from a personal theory of what needs to change and why, and, importantly, how change takes place. That theory reflects how we see the world and how we engage with it. It defines who we are and how we will accomplish our life's work.

I want to offer two reflections on the question "What is your theory of change?" The first begins with a quote from E.B. White, the author of Charlotte's Web: "Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day." I know I feel this same tension, and perhaps you do, too. We live in the world and are the product of it, and yet we want to push it in new directions. It's a hard balance to strike. Many issues we face are not just contests between competing factions in society. In many ways, the contest is within each of us, challenging us to question taken for granted assumptions or own worldviews. In that sense, we are all in this together, faced with the same challenge.

And that leads me to my second reflection. A theory of change is more than a single question about how change happens. It must also reflect what we are changing and where we want to end up. A complete theory of change has three parts: a statement of the current reality, a desired future, and a path to get from one to the other. Let me take each of them in turn.

What is your statement of reality?

As an example, over the past few years the stock market has been reaching new heights. Is that the world you see? Or do you also recognize that unemployment remains frustratingly static and income inequality is widening? Do you see that sustainability is going mainstream, as evidenced by the proliferation of annual sustainability reports, chief sustainability officers, and sustainable products? Or do you recognize that many of the sustainability concerns that these efforts are supposed to resolve continue to get worse? Carbon dioxide levels are rising past critical thresholds. Man-made chemicals permeate our environment. What kind of a world do you see?

Heed the warning of John F. Kennedy, who said, "All too often, we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." Learn the science; understand the issues. It represents a challenge to deepen your education on the issues you care about, whatever your chosen field.

I see a world in which we have entered what geophysicists call the Anthropocene, a geological epoch made distinct from all others by the global influence of human beings on the natural environment. Whether we like it or not, we now play a major role in the operation of many of the Earth's systems. This is a fundamental shift in how I think about myself and the world in which I am a part.

Is climate change real? Are GMOs safe? Is nuclear power feasible? Should we geoengineer the ecosystem? Your statement of reality will be the foundation of your life's work.

What is your desired future?

What kind of world do you want to help create? Where do you want to take us? I would hope that in seeing clearly the present reality, you will not stop at lamenting our current problems. Instead, I challenge you to look beyond those problems to a future that is optimistic and attractive, one that includes a life of meaning, security, prosperity, and happiness for ourselves, our children, all of humankind, and all of nature. That is bold work. As the Welsh writer Raymond Williams once said, "To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing."

We have no shortage of cynics in today's world; that is not a resource that we need more of. In their essay The Death of Environmentalism, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus point out that negative messages do not motivate people to follow a leader. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not give a speech called "I Have a Nightmare," but rather "I Have a Dream." Leaders inspire people to action by creating a vision of a desirable future, not by scaring them with warnings that the end is near. What future do you see? I want you to think about that, and think about it hard. It will be the goal of your life's work.

What is the path that will take us from one to the other?

This is where your theory of change starts to become clear. My hope is that you will reject convenient black-and-white, binary statements about the problems that we now face. It is far too easy to proclaim that we have the truth and that others are not only wrong, but perhaps even malicious and evil. The thirteenth-century Muslim mystic and philosopher Ibn al-Arabi wrote:

"Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively, so that you may disbelieve all the rest; otherwise you will lose much good, nay, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter."

While al-Arabi was talking about religion, his words can be applied to many of today's problems, which do not reside in one discipline (business, science, religion, or engineering) nor in one worldview (Democrat, Republican, libertarian, independent, or socialist). We need to work for the elusive middle way by understanding all sides of the issues we care about and the text and subtext of seemingly simple ideas; we must not pass judgment easily, but instead see the complex fabric--and therefore the complex solutions--with tolerance and compassion. We need to be able to speak to and work with all kinds of people, even those whose worldviews we do not share, if we are to find common solutions to our common problems. There is no other way. Dogmatism and absolutism will not get us there.

To really lead people to a place we need to go, and some may be rightly afraid to go, you can't just know the right thing to do. You also need to feel it deeply. You have to feel it to believe it, for, if you don't believe it, you will never convince others to go where you seek to lead them. The way forward begins with you, within you. When I say that your theory of change must be founded in reality, I don't only mean that you need to be informed about the real world, but also that you must find a way to draw your inspiration from that world. I started this chapter with a few words from E.B. White. Let me now present the complete quote for you to ponder. "Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day. But if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way savoring must come first."

Andrew J. Hoffman is the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. This essay is based on the book Finding Purpose: Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling (2016) by Andrew J. Hoffman. Available from Greenleaf Publishing.