It’s no secret that measuring progress presents fundamental questions about what we value. The problem for me is that too often we rush through these questions because they raise imbedded conflicts, make us incredibly uncomfortable, reveal different world views – or because we miss them. David Hooker, the vice president for community building at the Center for Working Families in Atlanta, raised one such dilemma in his comments. He asked,
“What if the measures we can make and the measures that are acceptable to funding sources either don’t inform our work or, worse yet, are fundamentally incompatible with the long-term success of the community?”
I suspect that his simply asking this question has many of you jumping up and down, exclaiming, “Yes, what if…!” Part of the issue here is how different people define progress. Indeed, can we articulate what is most important to each of us in making progress?
More to the point is the matter of how we even conceive of progress – what might it look like and what is the nature of the pathway forward we can imagine? I consistently find that we need more rigorous and explicit thinking on these questions.
For instance, there is often an assumption that the path between different points is relatively straight or clear; but what if it is more likely to be circuitous? If it’s the latter, how do we account for that and reflect it in our work? Over and over again I find that our own assumptions must be revealed and aired out.
This leads to Nancy Wilson’s helpful thoughts. Nancy is the director and associate dean of the University College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. She starts off her comments with insights from her dad (they never leave us, do they?), someone who has studied what makes managers effective, and she reminds us that to measure anything, we must first be clear on our goals.
Easier said than done, which is precisely why her point is so important. In my own work, I find that people tend to bypass fully exploring notions of “purpose” and “goals,” skipping right to the implementation phase of their work.
Why? Maybe it’s because so long as we’re in motion, we feel OK. But I find that if we focus more clearly on understanding and knowing the essence of what we seek to do, then we can actually cut out much of the activity that consumes us.
Nancy also wrote the following:
“There is one trick, however. As in any community venture, the prime goal is rarely the only goal. And, secondary goals are sometimes easier to measure. So the trick is to keep the focus on the prime goal, while still counting and reporting and examining the consequences of other outcomes – families sheltered, children nurtured, symphonies performed – without losing the focus on the prime goal: building community.”
So, here we have another key to this work – understanding the interdependence of different factors. We need to be clear on what those factors are, how they relate to one another, and how they need to evolve and develop in order for us to fulfill our purpose and goals. For me, this takes understanding the complexity of the work in which we’re engaged and identifying the right levers for generating change in that complex system. And at all times we must be searching for clarity of complexity, so we don’t lose sight of the end-game.
There’s one more essential point to make today, which is raised by Reggie Lewis, the executive vice president of the United Way of Essex and West Hudson in New Jersey. Among his comments, Reggie puts before us a key word to consider: “legitimacy.” Here’s what Reggie said:
“After all, I must have built-in legitimacy since I am a trained professional who hails from the very community I serve, right? Prior to the Nevada experience, I would have never raised a question so profound. As I continue to reflect on the experience of the conference, I move forward knowing that perhaps legitimacy must always be earned (if not demonstrated) when attempting the kind of community engagement that inspires folk to want to talk and create change in the first place.”
I couldn’t agree more with Reggie. In today’s world, none of us can claim legitimacy simply based on our title, or position, or education level, or any other such dimension. And yet, as Reggie points out, this can be a blind spot for many of us. We can fail to keep his notion in front of us in our daily words and deeds or, worse yet, his point never truly emerges on our radar screen.
But it is precisely this challenge – the one of legitimacy – that will enable us to engage with and ultimately answer the very questions of essence that David and Nancy ask us to consider. It is questions like these that call us to think hard about what we do and why, and that will increase the likelihood that we can make real progress on the challenges before us.