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How Might We Measure What’s Most Meaningful? How Might We Measure What’s Most Meaningful?

How Might We Measure What’s Most Meaningful?

by Tim Brown

October 1, 2009



We live in a society that has refined its measurement of economic activity to an extreme degree. Indeed, many of the measures that we rely on are simply not understandable to the majority of us and instead we rely on a priesthood of economists and analysts to tell us whether we are doing okay. As we have found out recently, this approach has dangerous implications when the experts get it wrong. We end up with a highly volatile system where most of us can do no more than react to the latest news. This takes away any chance we have of thinking long term or adjusting our behavior in a purposeful way.

We run the same risks as we seek to measure innovation, particularly social innovation. It would be all too easy to create arcane measures that theoretically produce an accurate picture of the state of things at the cost of making information opaque and unusable. In innovation we have learned that rapid feedback cycles are important when it comes to successful experimentation. That is what prototypes are for and a good prototype is one where we can quickly discern how successfully it is meeting the design objectives. I would suggest that as we seek to evaluate social innovation we need to find those same rapid feedback loops from which we can learn and adjust our behavior.

What might those be?

In an earlier post, Jocelyn Wyatt responded to the question of how might we put people at the center of evaluation. At the core of her perspective is the idea that we need to build deeper connections to people in order to create and evaluate innovation. One way to interpret this is that the stories themselves are the feedback. Another way to think about it is that the stories are indicative of a capacity and behavior. A team that can tell lots of stories about how an innovation affected intended users is a team that clearly is spending lots of time with users. It is this behavior that is valuable as much as the specific outcome of the innovation or project. I believe that innovators who spend much of their time in the field understanding the lives of users will, inevitably, create better innovations. In the same way, teams that prototype more rapidly learn about the short comings of their ideas faster and develop successful solutions all the more quickly.

When it comes to innovation, I believe that the right behaviors lead to the most valuable outcomes. Let's identify those behaviors and develop methods of evaluation that encourage them rather than spending too much of our energy on creating measures and reports that only the experts can understand.

Some questions for further discussion:

  • How might we use stories to assess the impact of an innovation?

  • What approaches would solicit honest feedback from users about new
    solutions?

  • What are simple measures we can gather by spending time in the field with
    people?

  • How might we use a human-centered perspective to help communicate impact?


Tim Brown is the CEO of IDEO.

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