Many will acknowledge that while we may not measure what’s important, the important thing becomes what we measure. Why? It keeps us exclusively focused on what (in-practice) we really value.
So what’s most important to those in authority? Organizations have ceased to exist because of a single-minded pursuit of it. Well we’ve fought wars because of it. It is keeping us from truly listening to each other toward identifying and finding a solution to the healthcare problems in society, and to the widening inequality in society—yes even to formulating a playoff system for major college football!
It all boils down to corporate profit at the organizational level and the flow of money from households to business (GNP) at the societal level—it’s really all about material growth and the accumulation of wealth. Clearly by our measures, we are not concerned with the viability of the organization or with the wellbeing of people in society. Rather, our concern lies squarely with the health and wealth of Wall Street—Black Friday is a really big day. So when the greatest good is essentially measured by say, GNP or by the size of the DOW, then it should be clear what we in-practice actually care about.
Let’s look closer at what this means. Focusing on (material) growth is a focus on the present relative to the past. This is synonymous to driving your car by looking in the rear view mirror—and that’s far from prudent behavior when the road ahead has so many twists and turns! Accordingly, we proceed in life—especially work-life—as if the topography of the territory we traverse is linear. We erroneously assume that if the next step causes an increase in our metric, then it is the right next step to take. The short to near term relative to the past is what counts—in effect it’s about what have I done for me lately! Unavoidably, in the process, the concern about the prospects in the future is disregarded.
The effect is that it causes us to continually sub-optimize both our organizations and society. Yes we experience growth, as well as everything else that comes with it—dysfunctional organizations, worker dissatisfaction, poverty, inequality, and yes even government regulation. It is not that we don’t acknowledge the existence of these it is that we see them as special problems, not systemic problems. So we create a department or agency and/or appoint a director or a czar to watch over these symptom-problems, while we continue with our focus of attention. We don’t seem to connect these symptom-problems to the very things we value-in-practice and relentlessly pursue.
Why are we doing this to our selves? The major reason is we cling to a worldview, a paradigm:
- that guides us in reducing complex issues to simpler terms—single dichotomous things are best;
- that inhibits us from understanding the interdependencies;
- that guides us in viewing these, not as systemically caused, but as persistent difficulties—difficulties for which the top 10% in society seem to be relatively unaffected. We fail to acknowledge that it is this socially constructed way of ordering life that keeps us stuck.
Adam Smith noted long ago that if we keep everyone—especially the working class—focused on pursing this one thing (i.e. material self-interest) then it will ensure their industriousness. Effectually this will serve the capitalist class who in turn will ensure the betterment of society—the seed of supply-side economics. The unfortunate thing, apart from this theory being a bit off the mark, is that material self-interested behavior also has more far reaching effects. Systems thinking would help us see this.
Systems thinking informs us that we can’t do just one thing; that there are multiple and unintended consequences to a single action; that our actions reverberate throughout the system. Most everything is connected and deeply so! Yet our measures tell us to place focused attention on one thing. At the organizational level we are expected to maximize profit—or shareholder value—without regard to much anything else. At the societal level, for example, it is GNP as a measure of societal wealth—which erroneously is at times equated to societal health.
When we reduce things to simple dichotomous (either/or) terms (e.g. capitalism versus not capitalism) we render ourselves incapable of understanding the complex nature and full effects of our action—we keep things as is. We are seeing this unfold before our eyes relative to climate change (aka global warming) and periodic runaway self-interested behavior by those having the most impact on, as well as realizing the greatest benefit from, the current system (e.g. corporate captains, financial institutions).
Well why don’t we just change measures? It is not that alternative measures haven’t been offered. For example, Deming advocated for quality, and Daly and Cobb offered the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare. The trouble is that if and when these alternatives get any play, they are adapted to fit with the current way of thinking—this is colonization not change! As a case in point, the theory of quality has been colonized so much that we’ve come to think it means six-sigma—this multidimensional theory has been reduced to a single physical characteristic. Adding insult to injury, we’ve even reduced it to a dichotomy—either it is within six-sigma or not! Essentially, we’ve developed an immunity to change because of the power over us emanating from (1), (2) and (3) above.
Even though intellectually we acknowledge that our world is complex and multi-dimensional, we continue ordering life in our world as if it is a simple single dimensional dichotomous world. I am reminded of the adage, a narrow focus of attention leads to a large measure of heedlessness. The devil is not in the details it is in our measure. They communicate what we really care about!
Why in a multidimensional world do we continue to rely on single-dimensional measures? What changes in measures have you instituted that are reflective of a change in thinking from one dimensional to multidimensional?