What is a Theory of Change? Why Do We Need One?
A “theory of change” is a model of — or a hypothesis about — the factors that will lead to a desired outcome. In the case of the BMR, our desired outcomes, as stated on our website, are:
- To generate new ideas and images of meaningful observance of b’nai mitzvah, observances that would tie b’nai mitzvah and their families more closely to the Jewish tradition and the Jewish community.
- To create models of b’nai mitzvah preparation that are more engaging for both b’nai mitzvah students and their families
These outcomes are deliberately broad and general. We expect that every synagogue in this project will come up with its own definition of the terms “meaningful,” “engaging,” “more closely,” and even “the Jewish tradition” and “the Jewish community.” And we expect that every synagogue will find different ways to reach its goals. That is what makes this project interesting and exciting.
The purpose of this document is to be as transparent and explicit as possible about what we think it will take to achieve these outcomes. After months of discussion, the BMR staff identified 7 factors that form our theory of change.
- Impetus for change: This is what led a congregation to participate in the BMR.
- Visioning: Exploring (and possibly re-thinking) people’s beliefs about the role bar/bat mitzvah should play in the life of the child, the family, and the congregation.
- Planning for experimentation: The process a BMR team will go through to plan the innovations that will enable you to fulfill the vision.
- Experimentation: Implementation of these innovative programs and approaches.
- Documentation: Collecting systematic data that will enable congregations to refine their experiments and evaluate their success.
- Reflection: Analyzing the data has been collected, and considering what was learned from each round of experimentation.
- Community Engagement: Involving successive layers of the congregation in the BMR, so that a large part of the congregation comes to share the vision of the leadership team and appreciate the changes that have been instituted.
How These Factors Relate to One Another in the Context of the BMR
Impetus for Change: What led a congregation to participate in BMR
- Project participants started thinking about the issues surrounding b’nai mitzvah long before BMR came along. The BMR application process brought their concerns “out of the closet” and created an opportunity for congregational leaders to have conversations about both their dissatisfactions and their dreams.
- Different members of the team may have come to this project for different reasons; it would be useful to learn (if you don’t already know) what interested each of you in the project.
- Visioning is the process of articulating a desired future.
- A “vision statement” is a way station in this process, a document you can use to share one’s values and assumptions about b’nai mitzvah. The vision statement is likely to change along the way as a larger group of stakeholders engages in this discussion, and as a congregation learns from continued experimentation.
- Examining one’s assumptions is one step in the process of articulating a vision. BMR congregations have done this in both their applications and in assignment #1.
- Visioning Exercises for BMR.
To read about how value tensions can serve as a vehicle for both reflecting on the goals of b’nai mitzvah and brainstorming potential experiments, click here.
Planning for Experimentation
- Why are we calling them experiments? Because they are trial balloons — first attempts at enacting the vision the team hopes to achieve. Thinking of these early programs as experiments frees people up to think creatively and boldly.
- Very few experiments succeed fully on the first round, and we expect that these trials will need to be revised and refined a number of times before they succeed in achieving their goals; and, of course, sometimes one needs to “pull the plug” on experiments. Calling them experiments gives one permission to try something that is, as yet, untested; it signals to participants and others that they are your partners and co-creators in these “works in progress.”
- Which comes first: visioning or planning experiments? There is a machloket (a disputation) among change theorists about whether visioning or experimentation should come first. We believe that it doesn’t matter where you start, since you should keep going back and forth to see if the experiments you plan are aligned with the vision and if the planning changes your vision. Our graphic tries to capture this visually by placing visioning and planning in the same bubble.
- Experiments are the concrete manifestation of the vision. It is through these innovations that most congregants will come to understand and share the vision, as it unfolds. Thus, it is critical to consider what kinds of experiments best suit the size and culture of one’s congregation. Should early experiments include a select group of b’nai mitzvah students or the entire cohort? How many programs should one try to introduce at the same time? Alternately, can one stage them? These are just some of the questions that will need to be asked as experiments are planned.
- Even as the team plans ambitious, longer-range experiments it should be thinking of smaller, short-term experiments that will test out some of the following factors:
- How feasible are the plans? Are the appropriate resources in terms of staff and money available? How will staff be recruited and or trained? How will does one find the funds?
- What is the best way to recruit participants?
- If they succeed, will these experiments get closer to the ideals expressed in the team’s evolving vision? If not, what needs to change–the experiments or the vision?
- How does one convince everyone (the team itself, the staff, the participants, and the congregation at large) that the early experiments are just a first step in achieving a larger change?
- How can the team “claim success” for these smaller experiments while continuing to raise the bar–increasing the depth and scope of the experiments, and enticing larger numbers of children and families to participate?
- What can the team do now to build ongoing support for experimentation on a larger scale?
- Before implementing the experiments it has planned, the team will need to ask a number of important questions. The following are just a sample:
- Does the congregation have enough staff with the necessary skills to facilitate the kinds of programs you are imagining? If not, how will it recruit and/or train new staff?
- Who will explain to the staff the new direction being taken? How will they be supported as they enter the experiment?
- Is there a group of potential participants who are especially well connected, who can be asked to recruit their friends to participate?
- How will the team explain the experiments to those who are not (or not yet) involved?
- What stakeholders need to be invited to learn about and/or observe your experiments, so that they can become supporters?
- Documentation is a critical component in the BMR for two reasons:
- Most programs in Jewish life are evaluated anecdotally — they seem to work, or a number of participants give positive feedback. Documentation will enable pilot congregations to go beyond this kind of vague and subjective assessment to assessment that is based on evidence. (Note, assessment does not necessarily mean quantification!! More on this later.)
- Over the past two decades, many innovations in congregational life have gone unnoticed, or at least under-appreciated. Through careful documentation, we hope to share the successes achieved, challenges faced, and insights gained in this project. In this way, the wisdom that accumulates in these congregations will have the best chance of being passed along to a wider network of synagogues.
- Rather than hiring outside evaluators, the BMR challenges and empowers the participants themselves to be their own documenters. The technical term for this kind of documentation is “action research.”
- In the context of the BMR, action research is the systematic gathering of evidence that will help pilot-cohort congregations understand what they are actually doing in their experiments (what is actually going on on the ground, as opposed to on paper); how the experiments are working; what effects they are having; and what changes the planners might want to make in the future.
- We have made action research a cornerstone of the project because we see it as the best way to challenge synagogue professionals to: do rigorous planning; take the time to reflect; hone their professional skills; and share what they’ve learned with others in a way that is evidence-based rather than anecdotal.
- Each of the Pilot Cohort congregations has designated a documenter who works under the guidance of a mentor. The role of a mentor is to: help the documenter shape the research questions; identify appropriate methods and instruments for collecting data; collect the data most efficiently; analyze the data; and summarize their findings to be shared with others.
- As evidence is collected, a variety of stakeholders should be convened to reflect on it. In addition to the BMR leadership team, these include the professional and lay leadership and current, past and future b’nai mitzvah families. Even programs that appear to have achieved their goals have elements that can be refined; and even programs whose outcomes were not achieved have elements that can be built upon. Reflection and careful analysis is required to learn all that we can from experiments.
- Moreover, no change process, whether evolutionary, incremental, or transformational, runs smoothly. A myriad of potential issues can potentially complicate the journey, leading to unanticipated outcomes, some of them desirable and some undesirable. Reflection is critical to understanding how unexpected results came about.
- Sometimes, even assiduous reflection leaves people feeling “stuck.” When that happens, the BMR staff, whose members have decades of experience guiding congregations through various change processes, are available to help.
- Since the ultimate goal is for the synagogue’s culture to be transformed, eventually everyone — from members with young children to board members who will be asked to budget funds for new efforts — should come to expect that the congregation’s b’nai mitzvah are, for example: more meaningful, more communally oriented: more tailored to the interests and abilities of the child: in other words, they are aligned with the evolving vision.
- For this to happen, members of the congregation need to be engaged in the change process from the start. While this cannot all happen at once, as many stakeholders as possible should do some of the following:
- contribute to everyone’s understanding of why change is needed;
- participate in shaping the vision;
- understand the vision;
- help shape the experiments;
- participate in one or more of the experiments;
- be touched in some way by the experiments;
- reflect on and contribute to the experiments and the evolving vision.
- Note that this kind of communication is multi-directional. It goes far beyond delivering sermons and writing articles in the bulletin, because it seeks to understand how various stakeholders perceive b’nai mitzvah and how they respond to the unfolding changes.
- It’s important to acknowledge that engaging the community continually takes a great deal of time and effort, both of which are in short supply in synagogue life. But research conducted on synagogue change efforts suggests that this kind of multi-directional communication is key. Failure to communicate the importance, urgency and value of the changes is probably the primary reason that synagogue change efforts fail.
- Malcom Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, is a useful resource for thinking about what innovators can do to help their innovations become deeply rooted and, ultimately, become part of a new set of expectations and a new reality.