Metric Myopia and Benchmark Blindness

Today, one is hard pressed to read any professional literature or sit in any board room without quickly witnessing the conversation eventually turn to benchmarks, margins, and metrics. This focus is pervasive in social sector organizations, especially among those which are larger, complex, and/or operate in sub-sectors quicker to adopt business fundamentals (like hospitals and health systems). Highly respected sector watcher, Lester Salamon, describes the shared emphasis on metrics as “the new elixir of nonprofit performance.”1

The frenetic pace of professional life in organizations has only been exacerbated by constrictions of the Great Recession begun in 2008. Professionals in every discipline—particularly those in philanthropy and fundraising—seem to be on treadmills with only one speed setting: faster. The unintended consequence of this pace and total adoption of the dominant single path strategy (performance skills and improving ability to resist disturbance) is metric myopia and benchmark blindness. This is a condition where the sufferer has reduced lateral vision, little or no time for discernment, lower tolerance for diversity and ambiguity, and a fierce urgency for and dependence on data that erroneously just reinforces an inward looking perspective. All of this can result in unintentional disconnection, isolation and, ultimately, lost resilience and greater vulnerability.

I am reminded that it is easy to slip into false polarity about this argument. I do not intend to convey that attention to performance improvement and the use of metrics and benchmarks is misguided or inherently a bad thing. I do intend to convey that alone or with disproportionate attention it can lead to lower ability to absorb disturbance. Renown systems thinkers amplify this point. Donnella Meadows believes “[a] society that talks incessantly about ‘productivity’ but that hardly understands, much less uses, the word ‘resilience’ is going to become productive and not resilient.”2 Walter and Salt warn us that, “…at its core, resilience is about risk and complexity, things that impact all of us.”3 With these admonitions in mind, let’s explore a few nuances of my observation.

                                           

1 Lester M. Salamon,) “The Resilient Sector.” In The State of Nonprofit America, edited by Lester M. Salamon, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2012) Kindle edition location 674-79.
2 Donna Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, edited by Diana Wright, (White River Junction, VT.: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), p. 174.
3Walker and Salt, Resilience Thinking, 76-77
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