In seven earlier parts of this series, we've discussed 17 pitfalls in the sustainability metrics field. We told sometimes painful stories from several fields outside of business with experience measuring things, such as education and criminal justice, and we discussed easy-to-miss things such as confirmation bias, mistakenly measuring the wrong thing, and failing to acknowledge complexity.
The point is to provide a meta-look at metrics. There is more going on here than just coming up with numbers straightforwardly and objectively to know how you’re doing. You can’t simply factor out the necessary involvement of us pesky, idiosyncratic humans, our imperfectly functioning organizational cultures, and the environment itself, which is not always compatible with assumptions made about it. Our goal is to support measurement utility by alerting readers to what has gone wrong in other fields and highlight some special challenges unique to sustainability. Knowledge of these nuances can make metrics even better.
But there is another subject lurking deeply in metrics conversations: What if some of the goals we are seeking, or actions we’re considering, aren’t — in essential ways — really measureable? If even slotting an “Intangibles” or “Qualitative” column doesn’t seem entirely adequate? What then, in a world that worships numbers? We will discuss some perspectives of industry practitioners grappling with this issue.
Pitfall 18: Thinking you have to quantify everything
We know this is uncomfortable turf, as metrics are so fundamental to business that their primacy is rarely questioned. But do they really cover everything which needs to be discussed if the goal is to move our companies towards sustainability? Whoever proved that sustainability is fully measurable?
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So to those with this charge — yes, metrics matter. They can also be the first step to larger, deeper progress. We were reminded that metrics may well be the most resonate and actionable argument inside most companies in a recent presentation by the quantification innovator Daniel Aronson about his Sustainability Valuation Model.
But are there not things that by their very nature can’t be quantified; at least not without some heroic assumptions or possible distortions in the very character of what you’re trying to quantify? These, too, must have a place in our conversations about sustainability — especially within business. We believe they have to be accounted for, even if in a non-mathematical sense. We’re talking about ethics, values (as opposed to “value”), fairness, character, purpose, trust, community, future generations, aesthetics — the stuff of the humanities and indispensable to sustainability. These are the wheelhouse of persistent and common naggings in our culture: King Midas, song lyrics like “The Best Things in Life are Free,” the description of economists who “know the price of everything, and the value of nothing,” and the theme of quality journalism versus ratings in “The Newsroom.”
Uncountables matter, tremendously, on the trip to sustainability. As Anna Clark said in 2012: “The metrics-based frameworks that are presented at global conferences and rolled out by C-suites are a necessary start, but they alone cannot fulfill the transformative work entailed in the paradigm shift to a sustainable future…Sustainability is not a trend or a tally, but a transformation.”
Sustainability practitioners with a systems thinking perspective
John R. Ehrenfeld and Andrew J. Hoffman waste no time on niceties in their 2013 book, Flourishing: A Frank Conversation About Sustainability. From the introduction: “Most of our efforts to address sustainability are focused on reducing unsustainability, which is not the same as creating sustainability.” In other words, less bad is still going in the wrong direction. If we, as a global community are going to leave a planet worth living on for those who will come after us, business’ actions have to be constructed at the systems level.
So then, how do we know if we’re getting there? The answer, as before, is metrics, but with a major difference. Ehrenfeld argues the axiom “We only manage what we measure,” heard at every metrics conference, only should apply at the emergent, systems level. This is in contrast to the usual “parts” level where they are, in his view, ineffectually applied. He states that sustainability cannot “be captured by a numerical score, as if this is some kind of contest.” Systems level measurements, in contrast, capture the signal; everything below it is just noise.
There’s no doubt that Ehrenfeld’s position is challenging to data-driven business thinkers. So if it’s your medium-longer term job (or mission) to move your company towards much greater levels of sustainability, these systems thinkers, both from and outside the field, may provide some help.
Researcher Renee Lertzman’s 2012 article “Beyond Behavior” puts metrics after the bigger and harder work of understanding our problems on a systems level. “In our obsession with metrics, we run the risk of missing the most important insight of all: the dilemmas, conflicts, and ‘tangles’ that may impede the behavioral changes we all seek to inspire. Can we then systematically code and analyze the data for our strategies?”
Kevin Moss, head of BT’s “Net Good” net-positive sustainability program, offers this in a blog post: “…by focusing on the score, are we losing underlying value and meaning? As CSR practitioners we have a special responsibility to pay attention to complex interrelationships, to pay attention to holistic perspectives, and to apply values and ethical standards that do not lend themselves to quantification.”
From outside the sustainability world, there is this refreshing power punch from professional idea-sharer Seth Godin in his blog:
As soon as we measure something, we seek to improve the numbers.
Which is a worthwhile endeavor, if better numbers are the point of the exercise.
The other path is to focus on colors, not numbers. Instead of measuring, for example, how many people click on a link, we can measure how something you wrote or created delighted or challenged people... You can see the changes in emotion, or dignity improved or light shed.
The questions we ask change the thing we make. Organizations that do nothing but measure the numbers rarely create breakthroughs. Merely better numbers.”
So, these things are key: sequence, where we give our attention, and the questions we ask. None of these are incompatible as a respected presence, alongside numbers, as part of an overall organizational learning process.
We accept Aronson’s argument that if you don’t put numbers on things, they effectively have a value of zero, at least in a conventional decision-making environment**.** And surely, that’s not what they’re really worth. But, at the same time, you risk losing other perspectives — unless you’re careful not to.
Our suggestion then is to create some space to explore whatever is relevant to sustainability, even if it seems outside the culture of numbers. Perhaps you’ll discover some way to, in some sense, “count” it; to blend these two usually separate parts of the human experience. Most of us already have some familiarity or sensitivity from different aspects of our lives with both hard numbers and uncountables. Even financial gatekeepers.