What are you Measuring?


By: Jeremy Neis

In March of 1968, Robert Kennedy gave a speech at the University of Kansas in which he included a powerful illumination regarding GNP that succinctly advances a line of thinking that we all should still be considering 50 years later.

Links to: Full speech transcript, Excerpt in Audio Form

“….Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

The specific problems and concerns of today may not exactly mirror those spoken of in 1960, but the themes and parallels are no doubt present.  Our modern landscape has ushered in new challenges like life-threatening climate change, vast income inequality, hostile cultural divisiveness, and a grim public health picture.  At the national level, the common gauges of success and prosperity today are tied to measurements like GDP, crime rates and unemployment levels. It is great to see positive “scores” in those areas, but just as Robert Kennedy points out – they don’t tell the whole story.  

Much is the same with our approach to measuring individual business success.  Some equivalents include: are the revenues growing, is employee count expanding, the number of widgets moved increasing, and is the bottom line profitability on the rise?  Again these are fine and important metrics, but they don’t tell the full story of an organization’s true vitality. Is your organization also measuring employee development & satisfaction, transparency level with customers, imprint on the environment or impact on the communities where operations are?  Does your company have a purpose beyond profit that is being pursued and tabulated? Is there latitude, or even incentive, to do good things even if it isn’t tied to a particular key performance indicator – how about because something is just the right thing to do?

Here’s the good news, there are many organizations who do understand the importance of these additional metrics and approaches.  Consumers are rewarding them for doing so with their wallets and prized talent are joining them to further enhance their capabilities.  Data trends continue to suggest that the “do no harm” bar is no longer good enough for a business to thrive and survive for the long term.  The growing power and influence of younger generations on the marketplace are reshaping how we architect organizations, bring value and improve the trajectory of the human experience.  What is your company doing to keep up with these trends?

***Special acknowledgment to Kate Raworth who in her NPR/TED Radio Hour interview cited this Kennedy speech.  We profile her latest book, Doughnut Economics, in our next resource review.