Measurement with purpose

29 March 2021

Social change – or, if you must, social impact – is wickedly hard to measure. But in order to produce the change we want, we need these measures to be robust and meaningful. It’s too important a tool to waste.

Most social impact measurement fails by ignoring our inherent autonomy as individuals. Different people react to the same things differently. Initial reactions might look similar, but closer inspection will reveal differences. Multiplied out over many people and over time these differences can amplify and interact in ways that fundamentally undermine simple casual explanation.

Let’s take as straightforward an example of a social intervention as you can think of – vaccinations. By definition, effective vaccinations prevent a terrible disease and don’t make people sick in other ways. The first vaccine is almost as old as the United States. Today, vaccines protect billions and save untold millions of lives. It is fair to say that vaccines are the major contributor to the massive increase in human health worldwide over the past two centuries.

And yet, in the grip of a global pandemic that has caused over 2.7 million deaths and thrown the whole world into a deep economic recession, 15% of health workers in America refused a COVID-19 vaccine when first offered. And twice that level of Black American health workers refused the jab. Why?

The answer is simple, and if we’re honest with ourselves, understandable; they don’t trust it. Despite two centuries of spectacularly successful science and health benefits, a shocking percentage of American health workers do not trust the COVID-19 vaccine. Or maybe it is more correct to say, they do not trust those behind the science, be they in government or industry.

Hindsight is 20-20, so let’s bring this back to measurement. How might we, looking forward, earn trust and belief in our actions to change society for the good? How might we use measurement as a tool to accelerate progress and create sustainable prosperity for all?

Single Organizing Idea offers an answer to this question that we want to hold up. SOI® is a change management system that any organization can use to integrate sustainability and social impact with its commercial objectives. The end benefit is sustainable prosperity for all.

Step One: Recognizing that proprietary IP is not a trustworthy basis for accelerating progress for the good of all. SOI® has set out its system in detail in a recently published playbook.

Step Two: A company uses the playbook to identify and define its unique single organizing idea (4-6 months).

Step Three: The company rides the wave of energy created in the process to make and execute plans to align itself to its SOI®. This may involve everything from being carbon neutral in its production by 2030 to revising its social impact work to be directly accountable to those experiencing that impact. Each of those plans will have clear and measurable indicators of success that will be tracked and communicated in real-time to internal and external stakeholders. These measures include physical things – like CO2 emissions, pollution, and the use of natural resources. They also include metrics for tangible changes for humans – for example mortality, disease prevalence, birth weights, incomes, and knowledge attainment.

Step Four: The company invites SOI® Ltd to conduct independent, regular assessments that invite internal and external stakeholders to say whether the company is actually living its single organizing idea. Assessments follow six business themes: core purpose, values, positioning, network, success indicators, and strategy implementation. The metrics look to beliefs, values, relationships, and behaviors. By communicating the results of these independently administered assessments, the company gets in front of those who will call them out as greenwashing, purpose washing, or even “woke washing”.

Step Five: The transition to alignment with your single organizing idea is a major undertaking. Assessment scores will highlight the need for improvement actions beyond the ongoing alignment plan activities from Step Three. The SOI® measurement system calls for the creating of learning loop teams, with clear mandates to understand the underlying causes and co-create solutions.

A company that runs effective learning loops will achieve two things at once. It wins trust across internal and external stakeholders who can see for themselves the company is living its SOI®. And it builds its capacity to learn and improve in real-time by tackling root causes.

It is this capacity to learn and improve, and to do it by bringing everyone along with you, that distinguishes ineffective from effective measurement. Instead of stopping with metrics one sees in social impact reports –indicators like “lives touched” and “training delivered” – SOI®-led companies publish all those activity and output indicators (they have their place), but more importantly they track and report the quality of engagement with stakeholders, the extent to which learning loops are discovering and amplifying proven solutions.

Measuring social change depends upon a guiding star, a call to action, against which we collect and review evidence. Companies that are transitioning to SOI®-led businesses have a top-line metric – The SOI® Alignment Rate – that could literally change the way we change the world; the average number of weeks it takes for a learning loop to discover and implement a solution to a root cause problem, to the satisfaction of the constituents of the problem/solution.

This example of a 21st-century top-level dashboard shows how the business guides the integration of social and economic strategies. Of course, it will have detailed metrics on commercial and overall business performance. This dashboard tells us that:

  • It takes an average of 42 weeks for a learning loop to solve a problem in the company’s transition to sustainability.
  • There is a good balance of types of learning loops as distinguished between, remedying a problem and innovating something new, that goes beyond a fix inside the company, to addressing larger constraints in the wider ecosystem.
  • There is a healthy spread across the learning stages as distinguished by whether it is: (a) testing different possible solutions (diversity); (b) making a decision as to which tests are the most promising (select); and implementing the selected solution (amplify).
  • There is a good stakeholder engagement profile. Almost of third of those engaging are a making suggestion. Three-quarters of those engaging are repeaters. A fifth is new. We would want to push for a higher percentage of suggesters. On the very positive side, the response rate to micro-surveys of stakeholders is going up and in the last quarter, 71% of people who received a survey answered it. That is a strong signal that people believe their opinions matter in the company’s process of learning and improving.

Measuring is key to the success of any business wishing to embrace a sustainable future. The measurement needs to go both deep and wide in order to have meaning and impact. Businesses that align with a Single Organizing Idea involve internal and external stakeholders throughout the process. This ensures that everyone has a voice. It’s a continual process of reappraisal, assessment and alignment. The end result is a measurement with purpose.


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