Putting the Cart Before the Horse? Five Anecdotes About Sustainable Business Metrics

In 11 earlier parts of this series, Claire Sommer and I developed 22 pitfalls in the field of sustainable business metrics, based on the experiences of many mostly non-business fields. (Find them here.)

What to make of five anecdotes from the author’s attendance at over a dozen sustainable business metrics conferences, and leading an interagency indicators initiative of New Jersey State Government in 2000-2002 that don’t fit the numbers narrative.

Here’s one about a proudly numbers-driven company. At a presentation, the company admitted (to my shock): “If a really good, socially oriented proposal ‘doesn’t meet the numbers,’ we’ll re-categorize it under another one which has ROI room to spare to get it through.” A Foundation at another conference told a similar story. Are they violating the blood oath of the metrics field, heard at the beginning of nearly all such conferences — “We only manage what we measure” — to which no one in these audiences ever objects?

Here’s another one that seems arcane and irrelevant, but probably is not. The sustainability indicators (another term for metrics) developed by New Jersey state government were praised by a constituent as giving order to the sustainability challenge: “We have to meet the numbers,” meaning we now have something to shoot for. So, as the person who led this initiative, why did it trouble me for years about what was intended as a compliment?

An interim realization was because the measurement-cart seemed to be leading the sustainability-action-taking horse. Still…what’s wrong with that? As someone who believes thinking backwards can serve creative purposes, maybe the cart knows something the horse doesn’t!

But more recently at a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) presentation about its new Sustainable Business Initiative that cart-and-horse thing happened again. This Initiative encourages small-mid-size New Jersey companies to take sustainability actions. The author asked why a section on green hotels was limited in scope to conventional buildings issues and not more ambitious about other steps hotels could take, like promoting local nature attractions to guests. The answer was these weren’t part of the Initiative because “there’s no way no measure them.” Similarly, no problem from the audience.

Another anecdote might once have been seen as arcane but has now passed the relevancy boundary. Very recently at a forum, another super-analytical company discussed their realization they would have to “speak to the heart” of employees to raise engagement levels in order to meet the company’s sustainability direction. Now, how to do that in a numbers-driven culture — or if this very task is oxymoronic - was left that day as an unanswered, if now identified, challenge.

(This company does have one advantage in bridging this gap. They also discussed they are trying to bring a philosophical orientation to employees. So actually using a field that caused generations of Kant-exploring college students to be hit at family gatherings with a sometimes sardonic: “What are you going to do with that,” it was not surprising the company sometimes heard back from employees, “don’t give me that hippy stuff.” So at least they have some experience introducing apparently, but not necessarily, incompatible perspectives.)

One final anecdote: At the beginning of the “indicators era” at the NJDEP in the mid-1990s, the agency promised indicators would tell the public how they’re doing protecting the environment; the good — as well as the bad. Further, they claimed that in an emotional, controversy-ridden business, “there would be one less thing to argue about.” It did not work out that way, with each side cherry-picking indicator results favorable to its pre-indicator (and opposite) viewpoint. Here was an early sign of the larger point that metrics don’t always live up to their claims. And while I would have thought the metrics field would be more circumspect over the years about what they could and couldn’t do, this message hasn’t been a common one.

So while more Pitfalls will be offered in the rest of this series, we’re simultaneously going to have to work through what might be going on with these anecdotes.

Should those violators be brought to “metrics court?” Or are their actions actually justified (and even praise-worthy)? What is going on with that cart-and-horse? We need to deconstruct some of the ideology that has grown up around metrics to better understand how to use them — which is part of the point. We’ll maintain a major theme of this series: metrics have value, but as tools.

We’ll also look at the implications and lessons to be learned from: (a) the new thrust of “purpose-driven” companies, which the co-author of the earlier parts of this series, Claire Sommer, has been exploring in her separate "CVS Effect" series; (b) other developments in the sustainable business field, such as the increasing respectability of emotions and attention to stakeholder relations; (c) various cousins of sustainable business metrics, including the older Program Evaluation field within social science; (d) other areas such as the Viet Nam War experience and trust issues; (e) apparently-respectable-again philosophy; and (f) another conventional and enticing wisdom to “Keep Things Simple.” We’ll see if more Pitfalls come out of this (preview hint: very likely).

We’ll also look at language in the greater metrics fields and how non-obvious differences and ambiguities in the very use of the term by cousin initiatives may be preventing us from reaching the potential of metrics.

That will lead us back to another cart-and-horse issue involving a first time exploration of the differences, but probable ultimate complementarity, between the “Pitfalls” orientation of this series and the “New Metrics” theme (which, most likely, is where Sustainable Brands editors placed this article).

Writers about “New Metrics” often use the phrases “redefining value,” “the meaning of value,” “creating value,” and “re-evaluating the perception of value,” whereas we have not. There has not really been any convergence between New Metrics and “Pitfalls.” It took me three years to ponder through this, but a future article in the series will try to change that.

Francis Bacon famously said: “Money is a great servant, but a bad master.” Substitute metrics for money, which has often been the same thing, and you have a major message of this series.

Better understanding of metrics’ use and limits gives them more value as tools or servants that could guide us towards sustainability. It is also possible that, once exposed, various usually hidden assumptions behind metrics could be reconciled with the enhanced pursuit of sustainability — and that’s the even larger goal. We’ll offer more suggestions about how to try to do that.

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