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Stop trying to make an impact
LF62 | Rather than advocating for any specific social intervention, let's learn to experiment collaboratively
In a refreshingly clear way he pops the balloon of ‘impact’, and asks uncomfortable questions that I - and the other well-meaning ‘impact-focused innovators’ (some of whom may be reading these words) - need to think about.
In complex environments in which most of us social entrepreneurs live, it’s almost impossible to say that a certain input X ‘delivers’ a certain impact Y. Things aren’t linear, despite how much easier that would be, and convenient for grant applications.
To get specific, Toby’s article introduces a ‘systems map’ of obesity: a dizzying web of factors ranging from education, access, costs, technology, media, supply chains, genetics, the built environment, individual motivations etc. While a specific weight loss intervention for an individual may well have a measurable impact, as we move to the population level and add a time dimension, things get complicated very quickly (e.g. should a weight loss program that works initially but not in the longer term be considered a success?)
Delivering healthy aging or longevity is far more complex than obesity. We’re talking about a lifelong series or events impacting your longevity outcomes - see the ‘exposome’ - and a complex interplay between them. And at least you can measure obesity objectively; there is still heated discussion around what healthy longevity is. (For example, suggesting that those in poor health don’t have good lives gets morally and ethically murky very quickly).
The article rightly suggests that for those of us working on complex, messy, social change areas we need to stop trying to ‘prove impact’ and instead prove that you are collaborating, which is the key to how anything meaningful will get done here.
I would add one thought. Rather than give up on impact, I would suggest that we all embrace the idea that impact is not linear, but happens though a complex web of factors, and start to work together with others to build systems-wide theories of change. Call this ‘missions’ if you like. We may not know the specific impact attribution of giving up soda vs walking 10k steps a day vs getting a puppy on an individual’s improved metabolism and waistline, but we can reasonably predict that the collective impact of all the interventions together will move things in the right direction.
In that case, let’s do a better job of making our social impact efforts open to collaboration with others, work together to create a common set of measures and metrics (how do you measure the cuteness of a puppy….?), and build iterative, learning-focused demonstration ‘sandboxes’ where a bundle of interventions can be applied to see what actually shifts the system.
Let’s not give up on impact, let’s just give up claiming ownership of it.
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