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Many people I talk with profess a strong desire to change the world for the better. This often manifests in their decision processes as something like "out of the life paths and next steps I have categorized as 'things I might do', which one pattern matches to helping best?".

This has for a long time felt like a strategic error of some kind. Reading Aaron Swartz's explanation of Theory of Change vs Theory of Action helped crystallize why.

I think your "theory of change" is better known as "backward planning" in the mainstream.

I don't think it's necessarily the same thing.

If you look at Wikileaks theory of change articulated in the papers State and Government Conspiracies and Conspiracy as Governance that's not exact backwards planning. There no specific plan with multiple steps. There a belief that a specific mechanism is a lever that brings change.

My recent write-up for Prediciton-based medicine also articulates a theory of change but traditional backward planning doesn't lead to a framework like this.

If you look at Aaron Schwartz as a result of thinking about his theory of change, he thought that having a good public conversation is important. That lead him to be involved in developing RSS, Markdown and Creative Commons. He was at the head of Reddit. He did also a lot of other influential stuff. His Wikipedia page is a good read: Developing RSS will have many unforseen consequences and it's not necessary to know all steps the way you would in traditional backward planning.

This seems tightly related to the "goal factoring" exercise. You don't really have a plan unless you have a concrete vision of what you're going to do, and your process is robust to as many foreseeable failure modes as possible. And if you have a goal but no plan, then you're not really serious about it.

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