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Tracking Progress When Down is Up

Abstract: The problem is the corporate predisposition to increases. One symptom is the abundance of conferences, statements, signatories and the like. One solution is taking the lead to test new metrics.

Business leaders are conditioned to prioritize growth. The corporate sector loves an upward trend. Expanding markets. Increasing revenue. Rising stocks. Exceeding benchmarks. A climbing slope is seen as proof of strong performance.

Capitalism is oriented around counting up. This bigger-is-better bias can pose challenges for social impact and sustainability leaders tasked with tracking results. Oftentimes, our wins are oriented around decreases. Fewer emissions. A reduction in youth who are justice impacted. Less bias. And, even when we move towards these goals, it often feels like communicating our progress falls short.

With my expertise in social impact measurement, I’ve seen numerous projects cater to corporate culture by celebrating participation or conversations as a proxy for real progress.

Signatory projects are attractive for a number of reasons. They get you on the CEO's agenda. Signing on to an environmental or social issue-related commitment can be a press release moment. Some of these public commitments can bring external and internal awareness to an issue or signal a shift in priorities. Yet, unless they are paired with more meaningful steps such as changes in governance and accountability, such statements are not impactful.

Similarly, although sponsoring conferences designed to attract big-name panelists and tally attendee counts might check the box as an action taken, they can in some cases be more of a marketing and network-building tactic. The focus and benefit are oftentimes about brand or connections rather than taking action to change policy. They’ve built an impressive agenda or email list, but is that the end goal?

To get past the “more is better” mindset, one tool in the toolbox is to forge new measurement paths.

A team should keep evolving its metrics for learning and to keep track of progress. Measurement is a means, not an end. It may be comfortable to keep the same dashboard and update it every year, but if our goals are to contribute to true societal change through our companies’ decision-making, testing new ways to track progress is part of the work. Especially given the rise in commentary that S in ESG data is lacking.

Instead of counting the number of companies pledging to act against human trafficking, track a proven action that makes a difference, like number of tickets issued with travel alerts related to halting human trafficking through business channels.

Quantify and celebrate the number of corporate Human Resource benefits professionals who have reviewed and updated healthcare-related benefits to ensure they align with LGBTIQ+ community standards. This is a better representation of progress than celebrating 500 attendees at an LGBTIQ+ corporate inclusion thought leadership forum.

Information posted by Cisco shows a mix of both worlds. Their reporting on environmental employee action first covers ambassadors and an event. Fortunately, it moves on to talk about tonnes recycled and number of actions taken. Seeing these paired together is an example of finding metrics that are about reducing environmental footprint but still counting up. A next iteration may look for methods to track overall reduction in usage either paired with or rather than recycling.

It will take flexibility and leadership.

Forging new paths refers to leaders giving their teams the authority and time to discuss what are the best indicators of progress. Then, brainstorming a feasible metric that can represent that indicator of progress. It requires flexibility on the timeline. There will be unexpected hurdles when accessing new data or using existing data in a new way. It also requires a leadership mentality. The metric may not appear by looking at other companies’ reporting. If benchmarking is our only method to source ways to make progress as a sector, we’ll remain stuck recycling the same metrics (and complaints about them) for even longer.

An external consultant can offer counsel and cover to test a new metric or survey. Better Next can help your organization brainstorm or execute the new measurement path you envision, we’d love to hear from you! Get in touch.


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