Nurturing Change: Metrics Matter


We live in a complex emergent world. When you put energy into nurturing a larger space – one beyond your control and possibly even your influence, be wary of assuming causal connections. Look for probabilities and correlations.

When looking for metrics: use multiple perspectives to help develop measures that go beyond your assumed (and blinders on filters). Think through time. And Be sure to track data that allows you to have quick feedback on blue oceans and black swans.


In an uncertain world – one where emergence from complex adaptive interacting systems is the way most things operate (to a greater or lesser degree) there are things you can control… a broader range of things you can influence/guide, and an ever larger sphere that you can nurture or care for.

Using network theory, we suppose that the impact you can have through the things you can control is small… it operates in the world of Gaussian curves – what Taleb calls Mediocrastan of sorts. And the things we can nurture can possibly (or are more likely to) result in power law dynamics – what Taleb calls Extrimistan. Thus, the impact you can have through nurture has the potential to be much larger.

However your risk and your “authorship” influence this as well. In the world you nurture, it is much harder to attribute outcomes to your actions… there are probabilities and correlations rather than causal connections. I can trace the causal chain on donating $100 to feed the homeless. Did they get fed? How many? Is that where my dollars went? I can’t say that my advocacy of a ban on texting while driving saved lives. I can say there is a correlation of texting while driving and car accidents. And then I infer that reducing texting while driving may reduce car accidents.

And the risk of planting seeds in the nurture space is larger (you have less control and thus less assurance of having a particular outcome). I convince my neighborhood to have an annual potluck and I lead the committee to make it happen. Does this make my neighborhood safer? Reduce crime? Increase sense of meaning and connection?

Transformative philanthropy operates in this nurture space – having potentially larger impacts over time, but it is harder for any change agent working in planting transformative seeds to give direct impact measurable results to funders.

Similarly, if you work in social media (or advertising for that matter) this dynamic of probabilistic correlation but not causal connection makes it rather tricky to say your campaign led to x, y, and z results (through your specific efforts alone). What is that saying? Something like “We believe 50% of our advertising is effective. We just aren’t sure which half.” or something like that.

We can come up with metrics to see if we are achieving the goals we set for ourselves – from products sold to child mortality. However, it is an illusion to think that we can attribute success in these ways to activities we conduct in the nurture space. We campaigned on twitter. Did that increase sales? How can we be sure? In the short term or long term? Did more children survive? Was it because we built a well, gave soap, covered them with nets, increased access to health clinics? Are we sure it was our intervention that made the difference? Or is it the convergence of interventions that tipped impact?

Creating metrics that show your goals are being achieved is level one. Being sure those metrics help link our activity to the outcome is level 2. Being able to look over longer and longer spans of time is level 3 (our action might have delayed or long term impacts which don’t show up in the short term funding calendars). And level 4 is being able to look outside of our own perspective to create metrics that allow us to notice a blue ocean move or a black swan.

My friend Manar, in our conversation on this, gave the example of Nescafe. They were very rigorous in their metrics on grocery store sales of coffee. What they couldn’t see or expect was Starbucks, with an existing brand, moving their coffee into grocery stores and having intense escalating success. Nescafe was blindsided. If you ran a bookstore, how would you have been using metrics that would have helped you anticipate impacting your business?

*** This post is part of the series for the Breakthroughs book. Please see Contribute to Book for more. ***