Choose your own adventure – Guest Blog by Emma Thomas

Choose your own adventure story book phenomena: an approach to social change processes

I was browsing my bookshelf on the weekend looking for some title or other from the back catalogue when I noticed a series of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books from childhood. ‘Choose Your Own Adventures’ were a series of children’s  books where each story was written from a second-person point of view, with the reader making choices that determine the main character’s actions and the plot’s ending[1]. This type of book format got me reflecting on recent work I have been engaged in where the plot was complex and the potential outcomes numerous; a collective impact initiative that had many players, with different strengths and areas of work; with actions operating at different times scales, settings, groups; and with different levels of maturity in implementation strategies and outcome focus. The plot structure of a ‘choose your own adventure’ format resonated with me on what social change looks like in this scenario.

Here are ways the choose your own adventure analogy can help stakeholders understand their role in navigating complex social programs:

  • There are different decisions that need to be made by the decision-makers on where to go next based on the information provided in the story so far i.e. project planners need to use evidence to make decisions on where to go next not knowing where the pathway will take you;
  • You are not just a passive agent watching your character make the wrong decisions without any power to change the plot arc. Project planners can be active and engaged in the implementation, and not wait until the end of the story to find out what happens. They can use data to be responsive and make timely decisions to shape the narrative towards a desirable outcome;
  • Sometimes there are dead ends, forwards and backwards progression in the story. Social change is not linear and project planners need to be prepared to stop something and start again or adapt and scale up to progress forward;
  • There are multiple endings and these are sometimes negative, so project planners need to track for intended and unintended outcomes to avoid harm
  • When you ‘re-start’ projects after a dead-end or undesirable outcome, there is the chance to select a new pathway and achieve an alternative outcome. Project planners should recognise failure as a process of learning and as an opportunity to innovate and do something differently.
  • Whilst the patterns of story lines are variable they can be mapped and understood to avoid taking the same pathway again. Project planners can use tools such as theories of change, outcomes mapping and data visualisation to help you understand and communicate how change happens. Check out these examples of choose your own adventure maps. Does this type of visual mapping look familiar to anyone else?

Perhaps we need to take a leaf out of the ‘choose your own adventure’ books when working with complexity. Conventional and prescribed approaches to planning, implementation and M&E are not very useful when navigating complexity. Social change is multifaceted and does not follow a prescribed format. We need to get creative and experiment with systems that support and enhance social change initiatives. Are you ready to take a choose your own adventure approach to shaping social change?

Guest Blogger: Emma Thomas, Freelance Monitoring & Evaluation Consultant

[1] Scott Kraft (October 10, 1981). “He Chose His Own Adventure”The Day. Retrieved March 15, 2011.

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

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