If we Cannot Measure Change, Can we do Transformation?



When we talk about goals, short-term and long-term are part of the conversation. Goals are an expression of intent. To reach them, we generally need to transform. Growth is part of it, but not the end-all and be-all. We want results in the short-term, and fast. Hence why we measure time.

Online, we first started looking at page views, and are now talking about time people spend reading as a proxy of interest. We measure time, because we're still learning how to measure change. But it's change that matters.

Time is an artificial concept. Change is real—in behavior, in results, and yes, even as growth. With a reminder that growth for growth's sake is the strategy of the cancer cell.

Patagonia's “Don't Buy This Jacket” message was a call to action to create behavior change. Instead of selling or making even more drastic workforce reduction decisions, the company's founder Yvon Chouinard:

[…] decided the best thing I could do was to get profitable again, live a more examined corporate life and influence other companies to do the same.

To align actions and beliefs. That's what real influencers do. These types of choices are business strategy, they lead to change, and are critical to success. 

Why is your uncle still treating you like a child?

On April 1, 1976, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created Apple Computer to manufacture personal computers, as the name implied.  The product line was unlike anything else people had seen or used at the time. It's hard to envision what came after from looking at the Apple II, Macintosh, and Power Mac lines.

Jobs was ousted from Apple in 1985. A little detour with Pixar, and eleven years later he returned to Apple after the company acquired NeXT. He became CEO the following year. We're all familiar with the narrative—how Apple had lost its way, Jobs had experimented with other ideas, and now they were reunited.

The truth is that eleven years is a long time as we think of it today, and we use story as a way to compress the sum of changes that needed to happen to get to the beginning of what we know as the contemporary Apple.

WWDC '97 closing keynote gives us a clue of the impact of change on results:

I'm sure you've had this experience. Where you change. You're growing as a person. And people tend to treat you like you were 18 months ago. And it's really frustrating sometimes. When you're growing up and you're becoming more capable and you've solved, maybe you had some personality quirks you've gotten over.

Whatever that may be. And people are still treating you the same way they were treating you like a year or 18 months ago. It's very frustrating. Well, it's the same with a company.

We have a hard time seeing change, because of a quirk in our brain—it fills in the details for us. The “filling in” process is instant and so effortless that we are rarely aware it is happening at all. We don't know that something is different because it doesn't reach out attention threshold.

This why the expression “we see the world as we are” rings true.

The uncle treating you like a child is the familiar equivalent to the less conscious behavior of the manager still treating the employee as junior staff, or worse, telling the former exceptional talent who won the interview lottery how to do their job.

We have a frame problem, not an information problem

Duncan Watts has been engaged in debunking the myth of common sense for the better part of his career, starting as a physicist, then going on to engineering and math, then sociology, and eventually computer science.

In Everything is Obvious* once you know the answer he says:

The frame problem should warn us that when we do this, we are bound to make mistakes. And we do, all the time. But unlike the creations of the AI researchers, humans do not surprise us in ways that force us to rewrite our whole mental model of how we think.

In hindsight, once we know the outcome of something, “we can almost always identify previously overlooked aspects of the situation that then seem relevant.” The reason why we fail to predict someone's behavior is that we paper over what we don't know. We explain it away based on what we think we know. That includes how we analyze data.

Yet we insist that data is the answer. Without creating the proper steps in the process of turning turning it into knowledge and wisdom. Because we measure time, and not change. Change is a process, growth is part of it. But it's not the only outcome.

Knowledge work is hard to measure

In the winter of 1974, Bill Gates, then a young Harvard student, saw the Altair, the first personal computer, on the cover of Popular Electronics. He realizes something that would change his trajectory, and the way we work—drops everything, and with Paul Allen and Monte Davidoff sets off to design software for the machine.

We tell this story to point to insight and boldness. But the truth is that without the work and incremental changes that went into turning BASIC into Microsoft, we would not be here today.  Strategy is deep work#, as Cal Newport illustrates in his book.

However we have a black hole problem when it comes to metrics. The ability to think deeply about something, and do the consistent work in which we turn the data and information we explore into the knowledge and wisdom that inform change—a new product, service, etc.—holds the value.

Knowledge work has created much of our world. It's hard to believe that we hold computers in our pockets, and that those very tools that were meant to make things easier for us are robbing our concentration and splintering our days into fragments.

Hard to measure change, when we only see it in retrospect through our current lens. We can learn to observe what happens in the moment, and become more aware of what is there, rather than what we assume from prior memory and assumptions. 

It doesn't help that when we talk about transformation, the story is the equivalent of “Jack and the beanstalk,” yet what we typically want is legacy. The talk about transformation, and the adulation of the one person who single-handedly seems to make it happen makes headlines#.

(Just 26 percent of people claim transformation success at improving performance and equipping the organization to sustain improvements#.)

What we want what we seeChange is hard to measure. So we measure and try to box time, fast-forwarding on the work it takes to transform. Our marketing, the very reason why our business exists range from helping people feel better, to helping people become better. For it to work, we need to change behavior.

Change is the hard question, and it's worth pursuing.  

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