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New Metrics
What If 'Opposites' Aren't Really Opposite?:
Part 19

In 18 earlier parts of this series, Claire Sommer, Jill Lipoti and I developed 37 pitfalls in the sustainable business metrics field, based on the experiences of many mostly non-business fields (Find them here.).

In 18 earlier parts of this series, Claire Sommer, Jill Lipoti and I developed 37 pitfalls in the sustainable business metrics field, based on the experiences of many mostly non-business fields (Find them here.).

Opposites are … well, opposite — except when they’re not. Earlier parts of this series explored widely accepted “opposites” and found that they are not actually at extreme ends of their respective poles. Terms such as objectivity/rationality versus subjectivity/emotionalism (see here), complexity versus simplicity (see here and here), data versus non-quantifiables or stories (see here, here and here) actually have blurry boundaries, dynamically effect each other in some way, or can be complementary. While not limited to metrics, overcoming these mental barriers might be useful for innovation in this field. The next few articles will explore more apparent opposites that might help in further developing useful metrics and improving their use in the pursuit of sustainability.

Binary, discrete categorical choices don’t explain everything, while recognizing this can take a number of forms. The mainstream culture shows examples of useful hybrids from what had been sure opposites. For instance, “frenemies” captures intriguing combinations of aspects of enemy and friend and seems to cover a number of entertainment plot twists.

More seriously, last summer saw major shocks and tipping point eruptions (actual and perhaps preparatory) of long accepted “certainties” that actually had long been lurking under the surface. Looking at politics, music, literature, comedy, film, Wesley Morris wrote in “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity”: “(We are) in the midst of a great cultural migration … especially in 2015, we’ve begun to see how trans and bi and poly-ambi-omni- we are.” The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is protected by the Constitution, Caitlyn Jenner introduced popular culture to transgenderism, and Rachel Dolezal at least started a societal conversation about whether even racial identity could be fluid. Long accepted “facts” may not always be such, something we have explicitly explored.

In what may someday be recognized as one of the most important stories of our time, is the change among successful businesses from being a major part of the problem to one of the biggest parts of the solution. Fundamentally, sustainability tries to integrate three formerly separate, and often historically conflicting (therefore opposing) areas (economy, environment, equity). By focusing on “Pitfalls,” this series on metrics tries to reconcile the tension between the possibility that sustainability is not a measurable concept and the value business culture sees in metrics.

Yes, psychological resistance to long-accepted beliefs can be strong, but sustainability itself involves a merging between the best of the old and the new. Jeana Wirtenberg, an organizational psychologist who has long written on sustainable business, tells us in Building a Culture of Sustainability that two differences between an unsustainable and sustainable culture are switching from “either/or” to “both/and” thinking, and from an attitude and practice of inflexibility to that of reframing.

Thinking and acting sustainably then involves learning to see, live with, and even take advantage of disruptions of categorical thinking.

Let’s look at how a frequent duality between numbers versus perceptions that scientists, among others, often find frustrating, and that comes out in a number of issues.

Scientists who use data to derive their conclusions are often perplexed when people do not find their arguments convincing. They ask, “Why is it so hard for people to understand graphs, charts, and statistics?” But perhaps it is not that people (in general) aren’t capable of understanding statistical arguments (if presented clearly and at an appropriate level), but that they relate much more easily to anecdotes. Consider the waves of refugees escaping the Middle East for Europe; people focus on an image of one drowned child found lying on the beach rather than the statistics of people drowning in attempted crossings.

In the 1980s, environmental priority-setting and risk ranking took center stage as bureaucrats and scientists alike did the arithmetic to get their favorite environmental problem ranked as the riskiest. With limited funding, the “scientific discipline” of risk prioritization was considered much more efficient than traditional crisis or politically driven budget-setting.

However, social scientists such as Peter Sandman found that people’s values do not coincide with objective risk. Certain elements were not handled well by this process, such as things that occur infrequently and have low risk numbers, but could wreak widespread havoc in a mishap, such as nuclear power plants. These create fear — a fundamental element not easily dismissed. Contrast that fear to the complacent acceptance of radon, a naturally occurring radioactive substance that leaks into houses and causes lung cancer. Radon risk was easy to ignore because it was invisible, the health effects were delayed for 20 years or more, and perhaps because it was seen as “God (or nature) put it there” rather than an action by the nuclear power industry. Risk metrics scream for addressing radon in homes, but people seem to need to wait for the proverbial “dead body.”

Perhaps it is a matter of trust. Are the risk numbers ignored because they were promulgated by government? Certainly citizens in Flint, Michigan had good reason not to trust the risk information provided by their state government about “the safety” of their drinking water.

So it is very hard to separate numbers from everything else; however, some may feel they should be. But environmental risk-ranking was an exercise conducted by government, for use by government. Are business decisions, or should they be, based entirely on numbers?

The answer is probably that business decisions are more heavily influenced and justified by numbers but, less obviously, can also still be colored by gut reactions and emotional pleas, including speculatively, at times, an emerging conscience. As Wirtenberg might say, it is a “both/and” situation. When seriously pursuing sustainability, it is perfectly valid for business decisions to align numbers with a budding sustainability-supporting value system.

In any given situation, advocates on either side of an issue and the way it is presented may make the stronger case, but it may be that, if looked at with a deeper lens, they work better in tandem.

Let’s look at a particularly complicated and difficult example of how this could play out: gun control — an issue that involves strong emotions on both sides, as well as numbers.

In what some see as another example of misplaced priorities, Nicholas Kristoff, for one, has called-out our irrational hysteria about refugees but blindness on gun violence, leading to a serious lack of attention to gun control. He points to the average of 92 gun deaths every day in America (including suicides, murders, and accidents) that far outweighs deaths due to terrorism.

What further complicates things, even in largely the numbers realm, one sees statistics in other contexts that support the view that there has been an improvement in the gun violence problem, with a decline in gun violence in the US. In 1993, there were 7 homicides by firearm for every 100,000 Americans, while in 2013 it had dropped to 3.6.

We talked about unappreciated differences in the interpretation of numbers in Part 2, but to us this means that while the problem may have lessened, it is still severe — with the numbers still higher than from the terrorism threat, and deserving policy action from both government and business.

Returning to how bringing both numbers and feelings together can help, Vindu Goel and Mike Isaac wrote that Facebook recently changed its policy to eliminate postings for gun transactions from legal but unlicensed gun sellers but continues to allow it for licensed dealers. They might have been influenced, in part, from an appeal by Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, who brought them both “research” and a painful story.

Ms. Watts “presented Facebook with research connecting unlicensed gun sales on the site to gun violence” — the numbers. But she included the story of a felon, who could not legally obtain a gun but was able to get one through Facebook, and used it to wound his former girlfriend and kill her 10-year-old daughter (Ms. Watts believes that for Facebook “to take a stand and do the right thing gives cover to other businesses to do the right thing,” and sends a “strong, sentinel signal to the world that America is working in the right direction on guns.” Perhaps there should be metrics for these!)

People do not wear Google glasses, which portray the world as a bunch of risk numbers, and make their choices solely this way. So, yes, numbers play a varying role in people’s decisions, but not necessarily a large one.

The main point of this piece is, we suggest that you have to do both: work the numbers and tell the story, the latter with emotions and all.

Pitfall #38: Metrics cannot be out of sync with the value systems of stakeholders. Metrics and their communication must seek to align passion and numbers.

If conventional dualities are not as accurate as is generally assumed, their continued passive acceptance may inadvertently be short-changing our thinking and creative processes. By doing that, they can interfere with innovation in general, which can carry over to our metrics efforts.

There are a number of ways to seek this alignment, such as the storytelling we discussed above and in Part 10, as one mechanism to articulate both our humanness and our rational selves. We will explore other “dualities” and ways to discuss their actual connections in the next few articles.