Theory of Change

Harnessing innovations for impact involves a clear theory of change, scalable platform, and set of design, technology and implementation best practices, along with a green light process for selecting specific projects that collectively are likely to result in a capital-efficient, engaging and effective vehicle for advancing and sustaining key impact objectives.

More generally, our approach to any impact partnership is to treat the initiative as an agile startup, with both partners working together to identify outcomes, develop a logic model, and to grow the design and supportive ecosystems in tandem—as opposed to simply a work-for-hire producing a one-off game product. At the core of this model is a commitment to jointly-identified outcomes, and to cultivating empowered ecosystems invested in achieving such outcomes (see key considerations).


Key foci for partnership success include: Focus on Outcomes, Focus on Tech-Enabled Services, Focus on Platforms, Focus on Ecosystem Integration.

Focus on Outcomes (not outputs)

Often, the focus during implementation is on what might be thought of as immediate outputs, emphasizing moving through the designed sequences as opposed to what learners can do as a result of completing those sequences. Outputs often refer to the number of people that use a service or complete a program, whereas outcomes focus on the broader impacts of that usage. Too often we see ongoing optimization of outputs often at the expense of larger term outcomes and often without proper investment in the necessary inputs—like local ownership, investment and professional development. Instead, we are arguing for investment in what people are doing with the designs, not whether all designed interactions were completed. Design should also start with the desired outcomes, and then building a logic model to better understand how the inputs are likely to bring about those outcomes within a particular context (see Kellogg Logic Model).

Focus on Tech-Enabled Services (not products)

Any innovation for impact does not determine outcomes, but instead, are best positioned as part of services that must be continually optimized for ecosystem integration, ongoing sustainability and scaled impact. When we move from thinking of innovation as a designed product for transmitting solutions to thinking of innovations as services within larger ecosystems for outcomes, then we expand our concept of impact; that is, does innovation reside in a product or is it a property of a functioning system? Similarly, the focus of the design needs to transition from products to services, with an emphasis less on what it is and more on what it does. When Intel changed their tagline from “Intel Inside” to “We power experiences,” it was in part a shift from a product-centric focus to a service-centric emphasis with the true innovation being that which their chip enabled. This service-based model not only enables responsiveness to participants, facilitators, and other stakeholder feedback, it also enables the continual maximization of engagement and learning outcomes as well as responsiveness to shifting dynamics in the ecosystem of implementation.

Focus on Platforms (not pipelines)

Over the last decade we have seen a shift in how we think about products, brands, and the ways they are engaged by customers. Central to this shift is an appreciation that brands exist in the actions users engage, and not in the products parsay. When Intel changed their tagline from “Intel Inside” to “We Power Experiences” it was bound bound up in a shift from focusing on what they develop to an appreciation for what people do with it. Inversely, pipeline technologies are based on a rationale in which the organization views themselves as having a great innovation and the focus is on how they can dispense their solutions to ensure that customers aquire them.

“A pipeline business employs a step-by-step arrangement for creating and transferrring value, with producers at one end and consumers at the other; thereby operating as a linear value chain. Rather than flowing in a straight line from producers to consumers, value may be created, changed, exchanged, and consumed in a variants of ways and places, all made possible by the connections that the platform facilitates.”
Parker, G., Van Alstyne, M., & Choudary, S. P. (2016)

A platform technology is based on enabling “value-creating interactions” among individuals and desired outcomes, with its overaching purpose being to cultivate the necessary conditions, matches, and interactions to engage the latent growth energy available in the world.

Focus on Ecosystem Integration (not dissemination)

While we have powerful innovations for impact, consistent with the assumptions above, the potential lies in how local sites leverage them as invitations to realize on-the-ground outcomes that are locally imagined, integrated, and optimized for achieving valued outcomes. The local context must be treated as a component of the innovation itself, with some of the most transformative innovations occurring in the context of implementation (at the nodes) by ordinary heroes with everyday agency working towards meaningful outcomes that they value. Such a framework is consistent with a model of anticipatory governance, in which the goal is to foster engagement, foresight, and a commitment to do the hard work of integrating the core transformative ideas towards goals they value. Importantly, these possibilities need to be invited and enabled, with the innovation living in the release, not in the designed bits and bytes.

The goal here is to allow for local agency and inspire local investment, at the same time providing the necessary structure to unlock new possibilities. Such engagement requires interpretive space such that the local ecosytem can make the innovation their own with fidelity being less about how they mirror the designers’ intent and more how they are able to integtrate it to realize goals that they value.

In this form, solutions, to the extent that they exist, are locally grown, contextually meaningful, and if properly enabled allow the intervention to evolve far beyond any content created by the design team.