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New Metrics
Going Deeper on Understanding, Measuring Transformational Change:
Part 21

In 20 earlier parts of this series,Claire Sommer,Jill Lipotiand I developed 38 pitfalls in the sustainable business metrics field, based on the experiences of many mostly non-business fields (Find them here.).

In 20 earlier parts of this series,Claire Sommer,Jill Lipotiand I developed 38 pitfalls in the sustainable business metrics field, based on the experiences of many mostly non-business fields (Find them here.).

Having discussed in the last article what is meant by transformational change, why we need it, that it can be discouraged by conventional metrics practice, and who is saying so, let’s look at some aspects of what it would look like. This includes seeing some nuances in unexpected places. There will likely prove to be many other, to-be-discovered implications with the active pursuit of transformation, which could then, if useful and feasible, be captured in appropriate metrics.

In our reading, while sufficient evidence was provided on the problem, no one provided an exact causal mechanism for how sustainable business metrics have to inhibit a transformational orientation, although diversion of attention is one possibility. Therefore, having been warned — with a better understanding of the traps, including a couple of new Pitfalls below, and with the meta-lessons of this Series discussed in the last article — perhaps we have sufficiently “fixed” the problem. The use of metrics can still be preserved as a useful tool in the journey to and through explicit sustainable transformational change, although some might look a little different.

A Deposit on Transformational Aspects and Their Metrics

Organizational Life

Referring back to John Elkington in the last article, what would an “exponential organizational mindset” look like? How can we tell if a company is incentivizing its employees to embrace this kind of thinking? Do we look at the system set up for performance appraisals for employee raises? Do they reward transformational thinking? In their recruitment, do they look for the kinds of people who would not be satisfied with incremental change and who have unconventional ideas? Once hired, if some ideas don’t work — do they continue to encourage out-of-the-box thinking for the next idea, and the next after that? Or do they quickly lose patience, and retreat back to tried-and-true conventional thinking that does not lead to disruptive change? It seems that metrics, with some thought, could be called upon for this purpose, too.


In her NPR segment, “Thinking Outside the Box with Our Bodies and Our Brains,” Barbara J. King described research studies in embodied cognition: Students were randomly assigned to two groups with one literally sitting in a box and the other seated outside. Each was given a creative task, and the results showed a 20 percent differential in favor of those outside the box. King reflected on the construct of the classroom as a box, and speculates about what would happen if classes were conducted while walking outdoors, or even if world leaders took a stroll in nature during intensive talks. Would they arrive at better outcomes? Businesspeople: Remember what you once earned those scout merit badges for, and how proud you felt? Maybe we need some updated ones or “merit metrics.”

Scientific Breakthroughs, Anomalies and Outliers

How about scientific breakthroughs? The scientific method is based on measurement and therefore usually supports and rewards incremental improvements — although, of course, not exclusively (e.g. the Nobel Prize for "the Greatest Benefit to Mankind"). We’re not advocating dropping this essential component of scientific discovery, which, in this era of “post-truth” (that we must not give into), would not be wise. However, as Kuhn — the famous philosopher of science — showed, scientists can become complacent and let their critical natures slip when it comes to noticing anomalies that hint that current understandings within fields are inadequate. We may be missing important information and insights. Therefore, in a different slant on that famous mantra of our field, we do not always measure what is important because we don’t always realize its importance at the time.

Eventually, Kuhn showed, these anomalies build up, and the scientific field becomes ready to accept a new paradigm that better explains the subject of the field. Mindsets shift, but it can take longer, in retrospect (or not even in retrospect, to us impatient change agents) than it seems it should.

In the sacrilegiously titled "Why Measurable Outcomes Aren't Always a Good Thing," Adrian Segar quotes Peter Block, who goes so far as to claim: “…in fact, it is this very mindset, one based on clear definition, prediction and measurement, which prevents anything fundamental from changing.” Segar adds: “…requiring measurable outcomes often inhibits fundamental change…”

Overly strict analysis of data trend lines can easily miss or write off outliers. However, actually focusing on and gaining insight from outliers is not a new concept. In Frank Waeltring’s article, “The Importance of Outliers,” he points out that it is important to determine why outliers are outliers — that is, so different from the majority of other data points. Using the concept of positive deviance, some people find new and different solutions, even though they are confronted with the same problems as the rest of society. Their innovative attitudes and consequent actions can be the transformational breakthroughs needed for society, rather than the incremental change more easily seen. If their “outlier” behavior is dismissed, as is common, opportunities for innovation can be lost.

We should probably be more alert and curious about anomalies and outliers, and ditto regarding metrics for them.

What about education? What about relationships — and what is that doing here?


As a college professor, I (Jill) am curious about the kind of teaching that would encourage transformational thinking rather than, or in addition to, incremental change. Teaching, for me, has been a way to take all of my experience in government, science and policy, and use it to guide students with a sustainability perspective. But I recognize my life has been one of incremental change, leading by incremental examples involving energy and water conservation, transportation and food choices, waste minimization, etc. How can I train those students to be leaders who encourage positive deviance, outlier behavior, out-of-the-box thinking — particularly if their future workplace cultures and society are not fully ready for them?

Part of the answer lies in the immersion of students in cultural change movements. As they learn to embrace the changes and adapt their lifestyles to select sustainable options, they tacitly (or explicitly) advocate for change with their peers. A good example is “Menus of Change,” where students literally eat their way to a more sustainable lifestyle. Rutgers has joined 49 colleges in a national movement to provide fresh, local food in a plant-forward diet, replacing animal protein with legumes, which add nitrogen to the soil. Since instituting the new menus, beef consumption is down 19 percent. Using the campus as a living (and eating) laboratory can promote lifelong changes (Matt here: It doesn’t hurt that it tastes better than chicken nuggets!).


After two weekends of marches on very different subjects (science and climate change), it occurs to me (Jill again) that maybe I am seeking affirmation during these times through association with like-minded individuals. And that maybe the answer, both for me and the much larger question of transformation, is to co-create the culture we wish to have, through relationship-building.

Tina Rosenberg, in “A Year of Big Ideas in Social Change,” discusses areas where relationships have turned around failing systems, including improved: health through home health visits, neighborhoods through block associations and community involvement, and student performance. Looking at the latter, Rosenberg describes a program in Baltimore called Thread, which surrounds academically underperforming children with an extended family of volunteers who help that child succeed. She quotes co-founder Sarah Hemminger: “Relationships are the key things that bring about real changes.”

In contemplating the original question of this miniseries (“Are we cleaning the kitchen while the house is burning down?”), I would be persuaded to leave the house because of my relationships with others. Relationships would drive me to take the transformational leap, jogging me (a Sustainability professor) out of my plodding, incremental change-oriented life.

If relationships are key, then we need a way to measure the value of them (as strange as that might sound). As valuation of ecosystem services has existed for some years now, even leading to some recent standardization approaches, perhaps we should start considering valuation of “relationship services.” While we’re far from ready to endorse them, there is some early work in the accounting and higher education fields that for other purposes has begun to wrestle with what is now called “relationship capital.”

In accounting, Related Vision defines it “as the sum of all of the relationships of all people within an organization.” While it “has been impossible to effectively measure,” it now can be, according to Mary Adams — with Related Vision predicting it will “become a part of the corporate lexicon.”

In higher education, in an application of big data to decrease the student drop-out rate, the University of Arizona is “experimenting with tracking freshmen … as they swipe their identification cards to go to the library or gym, pay for a meal in the cafeteria or buy a sweatshirt in the bookstore.” The idea, according to Dr. Sudha Ram, director U of A’s INSITE: Center for Business Intelligence and Analytics, is to “measure social interaction” — “how many people do they tend to hang out with for different activities, and is their hanging out dropping off week by week or getting stronger?” Do they “feel comfortable and socially integrated. If they are not socially integrated, they drop out.” Perhaps there is something adaptable from this type of work for purposes of helping with a sustainability transformation.

Pitfall #39: If we’re serious about transformation, we shouldn’t avoid the subjects of organizational culture; creativity; science, breakthroughs and what might be slowing them down, such as insufficient attention to anomalies and outliers; education; and even relationships. The development of metrics for some of these that truly show how we’re doing on them would be useful.

Otherwise, a conventional use of metrics risks not being able to take us where we need to go.

Pitfall #40: If “We only manage what we measure,” even with all of our caveats, then we can’t avoid explicit and direct metrics for transformation.

Transformational (or an adequate synonym) metrics need to be real, not disguised or mislabeled incremental change.

We gave several suggestions for specific transformational metrics in Parts 15 and 16, ending with one we said then we were half-kidding about: “quality thought time about sustainability within the company.” Now, not so much.