How to define and map a change process

Summary and key action points

Capacity development is about achieving positive change in the conditions and abilities that enable performance in pursuit of a development goal. In order to design and implement effective capacity development interventions it is necessary first to understand the changes that are needed, how they link together, and what approach would be best to achieve them. Change theories like this are different to plans in that they go deeper into considering processes and all the systemic factors that will influence how any initiative can move a set of conditions from the current state, to a desired future state. Having a theory and map of change can be a useful tool to help key stakeholders make decisions, plan and implement activities.  As a planning aid it will:

  • Keep the focus on desired outcomes and the best strategies to achieve them  
  • Provide a framework for sequencing and prioritizing the work
  • Guide decisions about the allocation of resources

It is also useful throughout the change process as:

  • An accountability mechanism
  • A communication tool

Action steps:

1. Clarify the primary need for a change process. Being clear from the start about why change is needed, and what the intended outcomes will look like, will help to guide all actors towards the most appropriate approach.

2. Identify existing change processes in the context. Analysing existing change provides invaluable information for defining the most appropriate theory of change for the circumstances including indicators about drivers of change and entry points.  (Change is often defined as being of three different types: emergenttransformative and planned.)

3. Articulate the change theory. Key stakeholders need to agree what type of change they believe will work and the assumptions guiding their choices. This should be a unique combination brought together to fit the context and address both hard and soft capacity needs over the short and long term.  The change theories will also need to be flexible and responsive to accommodate any unintended consequences that emerge as the change process unfolds.

4. Frame a change process. The required changes should be set out in terms of the:

  • Development goal: ‘Capacity for what?’
  • The levels of capacity:
    • At institutional level changes can best be specified in terms of conditions
    • At the sectoral level changes may be defined as both conditions and results
    • At the organisational level changes can best be specified in terms of results
    • At individual level changes can best be specified in terms of competencies
  • Different types of capacity: there will almost always be a need to mix of hard and soft capacity changes to be achieved.

A visual representation of the change process will be a much more powerful illustration of what needs to happen than any written narrative could be.

5. Consider the time factors. The time frame set for the changes must be realistic. People are always very busy and won’t be able to deal with multiple changes in addition to routine work.  Additionally, some change processes require decades rather than years.

There are no standard change theories that can be applied to all capacity needs – each situation should be analysed to ensure the response is formulated to fit the context.

Capacity development and change

Capacity development is about achieving positive change in the conditions and abilities that enable performance in pursuit of a development goal. In order to design and implement effective capacity development interventions it is first necessary to understand the changes that are needed. This includes understanding all the relevant dynamics and relationships of interconnected actors and factors at all relevant levels – institutional, sectoral, organisational and individual. But it should always be remembered that any capacity development initiative will happen alongside other changes happening within the context. Some of those other changes may support the capacity development initiative, some may block it, and some may be neutral.

Types of change

Change is usually analysed as falling into one of the three following types which can be a helpful guide for understanding the change already happening in the context. In complex situations it is probable that they are all happening at the same time.

  • Emergent – changes that evolve over time as the result of everyday activities and events. Emergent change happens at all levels, and is uneven in terms of both the extent and the pace at which it unfolds.
  • Transformative– changes that often happen in a crisis or when a previously stuck situation is released because a block to change has been overcome. Sometimes it is defined in terms of ‘unlearning’ or letting go of the old to make room for the new, which can be very difficult but is a critical factor in creating the space for change to happen.
  • Planned – changes that occur in situations where stability, control mechanisms and other conditions can ensure that interventions result in desired changes.  This can be both for specific problem solving and or for creating a more desirable situation.

Why define and map change processes?

A change map is not a plan, but a pre-planning tool that can be very useful for other important activities. Defining and mapping the change process, either as a theory of change or in any other way, has many benefits because it provides:

  • Deeper understanding in a complex situation
  • Both the vision for change and expected results, and a picture of what might be expected on the way to the vision, which can be indicators of being on the right track
  • A means to negotiate clarity and agreement among key stakeholders about required or desired changes
  • A way to determine the best approach to take and how multiple approaches might work together simultaneously
  • A starting point for developing strategies and plans – but it needs to be remembered that the theory of change should be a supportive tool, not something that constrains action. It might need to be reviewed and adapted as the process progresses
  • The foundations for accountability, monitoring and evaluation processes

A simple, but very useful example of a change theory and mapping tool is the ‘Theory U’ which is often used to guide understanding of and planning for change.  This example is from the Community Development Resource Centre (CDRA) of South Africa (Reeler, D 2007) (In some ways the Theory U is similar to Kurt Lewin’s classic theory of three stages of change – unfreeze, transition, refreeze – but it explores the options and ideas in a different way. More about this theory is on many sites on the Internet, for example

This approach is about transformational change. While not specifically formulated to apply to capacity development needs the theory can be easily adapted to this purpose.  This type of theory is very good for guiding work in situations that need changes in political will and soft skills in order to start work. Working with transformational change can only begin when there is change readiness, with sufficient will, particularly among leaders. The map shows a process of digging deep into what lies below the surface of the current situation in to surface all the values, relationships, interests and other factors that maintain the status quo. Once those factors are understood the challenge is to test the will for change, to see if people are really willing to let go of old ways and be open to something new. This is the really challenging step of dealing with resistance to change. If the need for change is accepted then the process of building new ideas, beliefs etc. can begin as the steps towards climbing out of the ‘u’ by adopting new ideas and then planning how to implement them in order to create a a new situation.

Identify existing change processes in the context

Before starting to map a change process it is essential to first understand how change is already happening in the specific context. There are several reasons for this:

  • To identify the predominant type of change already happening and therefore ensure that any new initiative works with and builds on the natural dynamics of change rather than working against or undermining them
  • To identify the energy and drivers for change that can support ongoing change processes, this can be very helpful for selecting appropriate entry points
  • To understand what constraints are at work and would need to be addressed
  • To see if there are differences between what people say is happening, driven by formal factors, and what is really happening, driven by informal factors. It is helpful to know if such a difference exists because it can be a very important indicator of soft capacity issues such as power, relationships, and so on
  • To provide information needed to formulate indicators of change

Past performance provides insights into current changes (or lack of them) and future potential because it showsfirst,how previous external interventions were received and what, if any, impact they achieved.  Second, past performance provides information about the organisation or system’s ability to manage change processes. Analysis of these point may give valuable insights into political factors that are more important in facilitating or blocking change than any functional consideration. In reality no situation has only one type of change, over time all types will happen, sometimes simultaneously.  What is important to understand is which type is dominant and why.  The analysis will need constant monitoring as the process progresses, because both the capacity development intervention and other factors can alter the way change is happening.

Articulate the change theory

While the purpose of a theory of change is similar for most situations, the process for articulating and agreeing one will be different for every context. Some theories of change are simple, with a logical and linear cause and effect rationale at their heart – action X leads to result Y, for example ‘If I put water over a heat source it will get hot.’  Others are very complex because they are dealing with great complexity in multi-level, multi-dimensional circumstances.

Key stakeholders will need to agree about which planned changes they think will work best and why. The choices made at this stage will be highly influential for everything that follows and decisions are much more likely to be appropriate if everyone is clear about their assumptions from the start.  Some assumptions that might apply are, for example:

  • Putting the right resources and conditions in place will allow inherent capacity to be unleashed and emerge
  • Learning processes are the key to sustainable capacity at all levels
  • Change at the lower levels, e.g. developing individual staff skills, will trickle up and improve organisational performance
  • Change at the top, e.g. passing new legislation, will trickle down and improve organisational performance
  • Taking care of the hard and technical capacity performance needs through carefully planned and controlled processes will eventually result in the soft capacity issues resolving themselves
  • Creative approaches to interventions to change soft capacities are the only way to ensure that hard capacity can be sustained

In reality, as with previous and existing change processes, the need it likely to be for a unique combination of ideas that fit the context and will address both hard and soft capacity needs over the short and long term. It is also important that the theory acknowledges and uses existing incentives that can be useful to motivate and support change, or identifies where incenitives will be needed.

In terms of assumptions there is a need to guard against assuming that a simple theory of change will work for a complex context.  In particular the Logical Framework project based approach is often the default response to identified needs.  This approach is based on the cause and effect theory of change and some core assumptions about the nature of problems and how to respond to them.  While cause and effect logic can be totally appropriate in some circumstances, for most development challenges it is too simplistic to address the entirety of the situation in a way that will lead to sustainable change.  Sometimes there is so much complexity and uncertainty that the only safe assumption is that it will never be possible to understand fully or predict accurately what will work.

The final important point is that theories have to be flexible and responsive to any unintended consequences that emerge as the process unfolds.

Outlining change process

Changes need to be outlined in terms of the:

  • Development goal: ‘Capacity change for what?’
  • Levels of capacity:
    • At institutional level changes can best be specified in terms of conditions
    • At the sectoral level changes may be defined as both conditions and results
    • At the organisational level changes can best be specified in terms of results
    • At individual level changes can best be specified in terms of competencies
  • Different types of capacity: there will almost always be a need for a mixture of hard and soft capacity changes to be achieved.

A good approach is to create a visual representation of the ideas – it could be a mind-map, flowchart, starburst or any other diagram that would help to show the flow of changes needed at different levels over time, and how those different changes relate to each other in terms of leading to capacity to achieve the development goal.  Although the details will need to be written up afterwards, starting with a visual is better because it doesn’t force everything to be shown sequentially in a way that implies steps in a logical linear order of events.  Many factors will be relevant to the change process, with multiple changes happening simultaneously. Both of these conditions are more powerfully illustrated visually that in a narrative.  The visual might look messy, but that’s OK, it will be a reflection of reality.

In general terms it is best to go into detail only for those changes that can be achieved in the short term of 1 – 2 years, with some detail for the middle term of 3 – 4 years, and only general targets for the long term.  One group of changes is usually the hard capacities such as structure, procedures and technical skills needed to improve specific performance and achieve results. The second group is more about the big system changes for improvements in the enabling environment and or soft capacity changes such as attitudes and relationships, both of which take much longer to achieve sustainably.  As the first set of changes in the map come into place they may create conditions that mean the next steps need to be viewed differently. Or external factors, for example a change in economic conditions, might be creating a major impact. The key stakeholders will therefore need to stop, review, reflect and possibly revise the theory and approaches to change as each stage of the process is implemented. 

Consider the time factors

The final point of guidance is to be realistic about the time frame set for the changes. Most people, organisations and systems are busy with demands on them from many different sources. Dealing with change always takes time and that time can be hard to find in the face of everyday busyness.  No one can do everything at once and very few people are willing and able to manage multiple changes simultaneously in addition to their routine work.  So it is really important to think about how to sequence the changes. And some changes need to be considered in terms of decades rather than months or years.


Using the Millennium Development Goal to Achieve Universal Primary Education as an example can illustrate some of the points.  In order to achieve the target Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling the overall thrust of planned changes might be to upgrade school facilities while at the same time undertaking a capacity development programme for teachers. However these two factors alone, while contributing to capacity, might not be enough to ensure adequate performance of the education system to meet the target.  It might be that there needs to be a substantive overhaul of education management before teachers would be able to put their new learning into practice in the classroom.  Maybe nationally the systems and procedures to support teachers are not yet in place. Perhaps in some provinces the senior officials are very stuck in old ways and will block any new developments. Or it may be that nothing is being done to overcome local beliefs that that girls do not need to be educated. In any of these circumstances the likelihood of achieving the development goal are reduced, if not totally blocked.  Capacity can only lead to improved performance when links are made between all the different elements of a system that need to change and work is done on them simultaneously or in an appropriate sequence.

Change map for education in province X

This scenario illustrates multiple aspects of change. Planned changes are steadily coming into place In many parts of the system.  At the community level there is some emergent change in attitudes due to the influence of the media, particularly television, but elders are resistant to the fundamental change that sending girls to school would represent. Because the provincial department is stuck under the control of a change-resistant director many planned changes for community level schools are not happening, and in fact conditions are deteriorating – negative change.

In order to have any hope of achieving the MDP target in this province change of multiple types is needed at multiple levels.  The key to many other changes is transformative change at the provincial level, replacing resistant management with modernising management. This could be done relatively quickly if the political will is there to remove the old director and thereby open the way for implementation of the changes planned nationally. This would include schools upgrading programmes; targeted teacher recruitment for the province, perhaps with an incentive scheme for working in poor rural areas; procurement of new resources and materials; and so on.  However, if the political will to make the change of provincial leadership isn’t present then it is unlikely the majority of other changes could be put into place. This gives a clear indication of the entry point for sustainable change in education in this province.

However, in this scenario, attitudinal (soft capacity) change is not only needed for provincial management in order to enable the technical and functional capacities to come into place. Unless attitudes change and families are empowered to send their daughters to school then only the boys will experience the benefits of all the improvements in the schools.  Cultural and attitudinal change of this nature rarely happens quickly, it is much more often slow, incremental and emergent over time. Such changes also usually require multiple methods ranging from national advocacy campaigns to local initiatives targeting key groups in communities, religious leaders, parents, and so on, anyone who will be influential to promote and support change.

This page is drawn from the following resources

Baser, H., and P. Morgan, with J. Bolger, D. Brinkerhoff, A. Land, S. Taschereau, D. Watson, and J. Zinke (2008) Capacity Change and Performance Study Report, European Centre for Development Policy Management, Maastricht.

Boesen, N and Ole Therkildsen, (2005) A Results-Oriented Approach to Capacity Change, Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Danida, Copenhagen

Neilson, S and C. Lusthaus (2007) IDRC-Supported Capacity Building: Developing a Framework for Capturing Capacity Changes, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa

Organizational Research Services (2004)Theory Of Change: A Practical Tool For Action, Results And Learning, prepared for Annie E. Casey Foundation by Organizational Research Services

Reeler, D  (2007) A Three-fold Theory of Social Change and Implications for Practice, Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, Community Development Resource Association, Cape Town