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Strategic Leadership 101: Developing A Theory of Action

Jul 28, 2022

Saying no is sometimes called the essence of strategy.  But if you actually want to make change in the world, you also need to take action. 

In a previous post we talked about creating a compelling shared vision, which is the starting point for any strategy that has a chance co working the real world where the outcomes we hope to achieve are more than we can bring about through our own action.

Now, in the next post in this series about strategic leadership, it's time to talk about strategy: how do we actually  contribute the most we possibly can to the change we envision out in the world?  In this post we'll focus in on one of the foundational elements of strategy: your theory of action. 


Strategy: A Working Definition


How you carry out your mission

Consistent with your values

In order to maximize your potential impact in pursuit of your vision


Theory of Action vs Theory of Change

These two terms get thrown a lot in strategic planning processes and it's important to understand the difference.


 As illustrated here, there can be many steps between the actions you take and the ultimate outcomes you envision as a change agent.  Your theory of change speaks to the big picture about how you believe change occurs, and your theory of action focuses in on the part of that bigger picture that involves your actions.

Theory of changehow the change we envision in the world is created, including all the key contributing factors, even those over which we have no control or influence

Theory of action: how we will directly produce a specific output that plays a role in creating the change we envision

Start with the theory of change, looking for key levers to create the change you are seeking in the world.

Then look for whatever within the theory of change is within your span of control and/or influence and engage in those actions in order to maximize your contribution to the change you envision


Action Evaluation Collaborative's Six Steps for Creating A Theory of Action

Action Evaluation Collaborative is a consultancy specializing in helping advance social change and they have a wealth of open source tools available for change agents. Their framework for creating a theory of action is both simple and straightforward--it's a great starting point for turning theory into practice in pursuit of your vision for a better world.  

  1. Establish your vision
  2. Identify your long-term outcomes
  3. Identify your short-term outcomes
  4. Identify your key actions
  5. Link your actions and your outcomes
  6. Identify your change partners and allies

 Source: Action Evaluation Collaborative

Check out the video to walk through these steps in more detail--and download the deck and other helpful materials from Action Evaluation Collaborative here.

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