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To Change the World, We Have to Lead with Impact

February 18, 2020

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Tracy Bain

Director, Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning
International Fund for Animal Welfare

Flying across the ocean gives you a lot of time to think.  First you’re wondering whether you will get the chicken or pasta, because it’s always chicken or pasta, and then after one of those b-rated movies you skipped at the theater you start to let your mind wander.  I’m not sure if it’s a bit of sleep deprivation mixed with boredom and a dash of no responsibility, but this is always the time when I allow myself a moment to aspire, reflect, and contemplate.  It also happens to be the only time I ever think to write a blog (wonder where this was written?).  

Now on this particular flight, I was flipping through the pages of a magazine and came across an article showcasing the positive impact a company has had on the stakeholders in its supply chain.  It made me pause and realize that I have been seeing this word ‘impact’ crop up the past few years in all sorts of new places.  Impact reports, impact evaluations, stakeholder impact, corporate impact, impact scorecards, global impact, and even job titles such as Director of Innovation and Impact.  Sounds pretty fancy, right? 

This term has certainly risen in popularity and can now be heard across just about every non-profit and for-profit sector.  I am sure some people see this as a fad, and in some ways it is.  Were we not supposed to be making an impact on the world through our work or lives before?  Now that it’s a buzz word is it any more meaningful?  I am generally a full-on skeptic of anything that flies into popularity on a hockey stick trajectory such as high-waisted jeans, rolled ice cream, or all of those different kinds of toast.  

But this impact fad is different.  Not that I don’t think it will have a new tag line in ten years, but the groundswell behind this embrace of all things impactful is a real call to action of accountability.  It’s the masses finally saying that short-term outcomes or even shorter outputs are no longer good enough.  Perhaps it’s the realization that climate effects are here and already happening; or the increasing social and environmental expectations consumers have for corporations; or possibly the knowledge that our human population is still growing and along with it the disparity between rich and poor.  Whatever the incentive, putting impact front and center and recognizing it as a tool, discussion starter, and accountability framework is a fad we should all jump onto and sustain so it becomes ingrained in the way we operate.  But how can we start to do this?  

Here are some steps we can all take right now:

Stop asking your teams what they have done this week or this past month and start asking them what have they achieved. 

What are the longer-term outcomes they have achieved as a result of their activities? What measurable progress have they made toward real impact? How are they driving change in the environment or community in which they work right now?  If we continually ask these questions and shift the conversation from activity tracking to outcome and impact tracking, we change our entire mindset to see beyond the day-to-day, focusing instead on the changes our actions bring about in others and the communities in which we work.  This standard of accountability then drives how progress is measured and success benchmarked. 

If your team only talks about their successes, ask them about their failures.

Be direct about this and encourage them to open up and share. Think of all those times in your life where you have learned critical life lessons.  How many of those came from happy, perfect, shining experiences vs the brutal, embarrassing or disappointing ones?  Most likely the lessons that stand out are from the latter.  The same applies to our work–we can learn so much more from what went wrong in a project than what went as planned.  Not that we don’t look to share, replicate or scale up what went well in a project, but a failure provides an opportunity for the whole team to come together and figure out what went wrong, and use their collective experiences to learn from that failure and drive operational or strategic change.  If we don’t build a culture of learning from failure, we are leaving behind opportunities to grow.

Think and act like a start-up. 

Do I mean we all need to work in open floor plans, wear athleisure on a daily basis and play ping-pong in the breakroom?  Maybe not a bad work environment, but what I am referring to instead is the start-up mentality of rapid ideation and successive feedback loops.  Because a start-up usually has few chances to get it right, it has to smartly develop a product or service that people want and reflects their changing needs or desires.  This means that the company must listen to and learn from its customers on a frequent basis and ask the right questions.  They then need to make changes to their product or service quickly, get it out to their customers, and get feedback again.  This rapid ideation and feedback loop allows a company to tailor its product to meet the needs of its customers, respond to changes in the landscape, and ultimately become profitable and scalable as quickly as possible.  

How does this transcribe to impact?  Impact is our profit.  The faster we can learn what is working well and what needs to change, the quicker we can solve problems, reduce threats, and scale our solutions to meet the needs of many, many beneficiaries.  Very infrequently are we looking to solve problems for just a few people or animals or communities.  Usually we are addressing threats to thousands or millions of those in need and so we cannot just operate as business as usual and expect to make real substantial change.  Real impact.

So I’m on the impact bandwagon.  It’s all I think about, it’s all I ask about and it’s what drives me day to day.  It’s a fad I can get behind as increasing our impact collectively means greater sustainability and protection for the one planet we call home.  As I look out the tiny window to the ocean and landscapes below, I smile contentedly knowing that although I have a lot of work ahead of me, I can be confident that it will lead to real, positive change.