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Do Sustainability Metrics Foster Incremental vs Transformational Change?: Part 20

Image Credit: Simplivity

In 19 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 themhere.).

This Series has been on hiatus for 15 months as the authors pursued other things, such as college teaching, responding to students’ requests for a campus sustainability conference, writing that takes a long view on the development of the sustainable business field, and attending forums on transformational change. Time now to bring some of those experiences to this Series, focusing on a word we’re beginning to see, and expect to see a lot more of: “transformation.” We think this topic will be so important, we’re going to do this as a two-part miniseries, within the larger Metrics Series.

The Overall Series Purposes

Recall, as it’s been a while, or if we were never sufficiently clear, this Series takes the contrarian position that while metrics can be a useful tool, they need to be used critically, not mechanically, as a means to learn our way to sustainability — as the latter is not easy.

Mostly, the point of the series is to urge sustainability metrics users to take advantage of some of the hard lessons learned by several other fields that emphasize measurement, as we see no good reason to repeat their problems in our field. And in some more recent articles, we’ve begun to experiment with an additional use of metrics, less “Pitfall-y,” but as a kind of pause-&-check point, to ask certain questions internally that could further guide a company towards sustainability.

Contrary to what a few have thought, we are not “anti-data” or “anti-metrics” but certainly do not agree with a phrase we’ve begun to hear in the “Age of Big Data”: “It’s all data.” We have mixed feelings about the famous mantra: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” While not totally off, it is insufficient, particularly if just nodded along to. A meta-lesson, perhaps itself measurable through a new meta-metric, is emerging in this Series that would encourage the continual asking of a question: “Are we missing anything in our pursuit of sustainability?”

Finally, while there is a small amount of overlap in a few places in the larger sustainability metrics field, there really is no one else writing about or publicly discussing their “pitfalls,” including the metrics standard-setting groups.

Definition and Similar Terms

For now, let’s start with a definition of transformation from Klimek and Atkisson: “a scale of change (that is) big, comprehensive, containing within it many smaller changes, opportunities, and problems to solve.” We suggest adding that they are surprising and can be sudden, although that could be from not paying attention to precursors, sweeping, and (less surely) when they occur generate less resistance than what one might have expected. And while it might be easier to wrap one’s mind around technological transformations, for the most part that’s not what we’re talking about.  

As this is an early stage of something that we know needs to evolve, let’s not be too fussy about significant differences between this and similar terms such as “exponential change,” “systems change,” and maybe even “disruption” and “transition.” Arguably, “regeneration,” “purpose” and “benefit” slide in as undeclared transformation. Forum for the Future uses "The Big Shift," and Andrew Winston uses "The Big Pivot." What it is not is the much more common, usually unlabeled incremental change, as Klimek and Atkisson say, is “getting a little more efficient, or creating a greener profile, or becoming a little more engaged with community issues.” They say these “are nice things to do, and they might even be important to do. But they are still just tinkering in relationship to the real issues.”

A Trouble-Maker in the Audience

A challenging question was asked of one of us from a citizen in Princeton after a sustainability talk. He asked, “Aren’t you just cleaning the kitchen while the rest of the house burns down?” His concern was that focus on sustainability metrics (water saved, energy saved, etc) was too parochial, too trivial to make a difference in the big problems facing the world. Specifically, he was asking about climate change, but it could have been about a lot of things (such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs). It seemed that he wants us to think bigger – which is trouble, as that can cause metaphorical bruises for those who venture there where incremental change is the unquestioned norm!

Why Go There and Who Is Saying We Must?

The citizen’s question is similar to concerns raised in the article "It's Time for Exponential Thinking About Corporate Responsibility" by Ben Schiller, in an interview with sustainable business pioneer John Elkington. A hint is a phrase in the subtitle: “…How We Can Move Past Incrementalism and Toward Fast, Breakthrough Change.”

Elkington “no longer thinks the incrementalism of CSR, with its careful measuring and reporting of ‘impacts,’ is sufficient. We need something more exponential and far-reaching … less accountancy, more Silicon Valley moonshot.” With his Project Breakthrough, he asks companies to track their progress on the SDGs (which is still unusual if no longer unprecedented), and “to take on an ‘exponential mindset’ that matches the size of today's health, environmental and food challenges.”

Schiller concludes: “… it would be a surprise if reporting-and-measuring-type CSR will be enough going forward.”

Our citizen, Elkington and Schiller are not the only ones saying something like this:

  • We noted in Part 8 of this Series that another giant, John Ehrenfeld, and Andrew Hoffman, in their book, Flourishing, believe that the proper place for metrics is at the systems level. Below that level, at the usual “parts” level, “everything is just noise”
  • While strong believers in metrics (although they call them “indicators”) for measuring sustainability changes, Klimek and AtKisson, in their new book, Parachuting Cats into Borneo, imply it is harder when it comes to pursuing sustainability transformations. For the latter, we must function as “learning organizations,” “…always have to be ready to ask questions, listen deeply, search for new understanding — and try to let go of the feeling that we must know exactly what’s happening, or going to happen. This is just not possible, of course.” Whereas, “…in organizational life, especially, we often pretend that it is possible. We make strategies and plans with key performance indicators (another synonym for metrics) and often with very little provision for uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity.” They define complexity as not “being able to understand what’s going on, because there are so many things in motion.” We discussed complexity in Parts 4 and 5.
  • Consultant Megan DeYoung charges that metrics standards such as GRI, by “providing guide rails towards sameness,” and encouraging a “tick-box exercise,” “do nothing to spur innovation.”
  • The former Administrator of the Federal Agency for International Development (USAID), which has long experience with measurement, Andrew Natsios, wrote that strong emphasis during his tenure “ignores … that those development programs that are most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational, and those programs that are most transformational are the least measurable.” He charges the way measurement is done is antithetical to the very purpose of the agency: development. He even invented a syndrome for it: “Obsessive Measurement Disorder” or OMD! Good thing we don’t have that in our field, right?
  • Tom Domen of Ecover, in “Feel the Way,” in Forum for the Future’s The Long View: How Can We Use Tomorrow to Transform Today?, states “…when they (metrics) become an obsession, we risk losing the big picture,” and “if you have to measure a result, it’s not big enough.” By “letting ourselves be guided by something as soft as a ‘philosophy’…” as ‘nature’… (instead of by metrics), I wonder if it pushes us to pursue more radical goals that in the end will enable us to have a footprint that’s positive overall …”    
  • One of the best early documents specifically on sustainable businesses transformation is the Future-Fit Business Benchmark, co-authored by another sustainable business giant, Bob Willard, and Geoff Kendall. They state: “For ‘impossible’ goals, the continuous improvement mentality is not enough: some level of disruptive innovation is typically required.” The document encourages the internal asking by businesses of deep questions (e.g. “What don’t we know?” “What would it take?”). These show uncommon qualities such as curiosity, humility and even bravery necessary for sustainability, very far from a complacent, promotional or bean-counting mentality. The actual asking of, and discussion around, such questions within businesses could be very complementary to the transformation-oriented metrics Future-Fit is also developing.
  • Finally, yet another giant, William McDonough, says: “Putting values first produces far higher levels of innovation and performance than starting the design process with metrics, which tends to blur goals and aspirations with commonplace limits and benchmarks.”

So, there seems to be some shared special and varied concerns about the current practice of metrics when it comes to transformation and related concepts like large scale innovation.

Well, no new Pitfalls for now, but certainly there will be in the next part of this miniseries, as we explore some aspects of what transformation would look like.


Matt Polsky is a sustainability change agent and a Senior Fellow at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise. He tries to leverage change by encouraging select individuals and organizations to aim higher; and by catalyzing new types of sustainability… [Read more about Matt Polsky]


Jill Lipoti received her Ph.D. from Rutgers in 1985. Dr. Lipoti was hired by NJ Department ofEnvironmental Protection and assumed a series of jobs of increasing responsibility, including Community Right to Know, Pollution Prevention, Radiation Protection, Toxic Catastrophe Prevention, Discharge…
[Read more about Dr. Jill Lipoti]


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