Running for the Train

As everyone in my family knows, I have a persistent, daily, absurd issue with running for the train.

Each morning, to get to work, I walk a half mile from my house to the train station. At a relaxed pace, that walk takes 12 to 14. Walking briskly, you can do it in 10-12 minutes. Most mornings I do it in 8-9 minutes, and when things get bad, I sprint to the train in 6 minutes.

Mind you, this is all while fully dressed for work. And it’s not because I’ve overslept: I wake up at least 75 minutes before the train, and often I’ve been up for as much as two and a half hours (to exercise).

But here we are in January, and, like any period after a proper vacation, I find that on the first day back I  leave the house “early” and stroll casually to the train. While walking, I inevitably remark to myself how enjoyable this is, not just because I’m not huffing and puffing but also because I’m not starting my day with stress and rush.

Yet, most of the time, by Friday of that first week I’m back to rushing.

There’s a quality that all our days acquire when we get pulled back into the thick of things. For me, that quality is “rushed.” You will have, I suspect, a different default vice than I do.

Of course, it’s obvious that my vice isn’t serving me in a productive way.

Though, strictly speaking, that’s not true—since I engage in this behavior day in and day out, it has to be serving some need. This need seems to be the belief in the importance of the few extra things I do before dashing out of the house, or maybe there’s a bigger story I’m telling myself about how cramming activity into every last minute will sum up to a more productive day or week.

And yet, just imagine if they changed the schedule and moved the train five minutes earlier. I’d adjust, instantly.

While I continue to ponder my own foibles, here’s a question for you: what qualities do you let creep in to your days that don’t serve you—things that cause stress or worry or simply the theater of busyness? What trade-offs are you making that you could let go of? What things about how “busy” feels might be open to questioning? What mindset shift would make that sort of change easy and lasting?

What would be your equivalent of “if they changed the train schedule…”?

Here’s to a great start to your near year and new decade.


I got to spend the afternoon cooking with one of my daughters. We were making quinoa latkes, a recipe I highly recommend (even if you’re neither a vegetarian nor making piles of latkes for Hanukkah.) They’re delicious and, except for the bit where you cook them in oil, extremely healthy—they’re made with sweet potatoes, kale, quinoa, ginger, panko and eggs.

My daughter is a great baker and a good cook, so she’s comfortable in the kitchen. That said, even though she wanted to be in charge of making the quinoa latkes, she needed help, from time to time, in the form of accompaniment.

Accompaniment, when done successfully, allows someone to succeed at a new, stretch assignment while feeling supported along the way.

In this case, my daughter understood and could follow and execute the recipe. But there were a few steps that stumped her: How much should the boiling water bubble before turning down the flame on the quinoa? Do you use a peeler and grater on fresh ginger? How soft, exactly, do the sweet potatoes need to be?

Each of these questions was a quick, easy answer, small enough that they required very little from me, but important enough that without them she could have gotten stuck.

While she was cooking, I busied myself with other kitchen tasks: peeling and chopping up a big butternut squash and cutting up a pile of Brussel Sprouts for later. This was a good choice, because it kept me nearby—not pulled into another task—while also reminding me to resist my natural tendency to help a little too much (also known as “taking over”).

The latkes were great, and the lesson on accompaniment is one I’ll take forward into 2020.

When we accompany successfully we inhabit the essential space between giving too much freedom (“here’s what you need to get done, here’s how I’d like to you to do it, let me know if you need anything”) and too much direction (micromanagement). This allows the person you’re supporting to stay in the driver’s seat, even in the face of challenges, and to feel supported in overcoming these challenges without giving up control and agency. At its best, successful accompaniment begets pride in accomplishment, an increase in trust, and more confidence for the next task.

Of course, pulling this off when standing next to a family member, together in the kitchen on a relaxed holiday afternoon, isn’t too hard. Finding this balance—of staying present, available, and quick to help—in the midst of the push and pull of our busy days and jobs is harder.

The two must-haves are staying aware and being highly available and communicative.

  1. Staying aware: find a way to continually track, in a light-touch way, the progress of the person you’re supporting, so you always know whether things are on or off track and can be ready to help.
  2. Being highly available and communicative: it’s your job to demonstrate that the door is wide open and that, even though you’re not involved every step of the way, you are present and available. Being there to jump in quickly to solve a problem, and then pulling back again to give back the reins, is a great way to ensure that someone feels supported and still in control.

One final note: I want to thank all of you for accompanying me throughout 2019. I hope you’ve found this year’s posts useful, and that they’ve supported you in the important work that you do. I wish you all a happy, healthy 2020.

What Will You Announce Today?

“If you brought umbrellas, don’t forget them on the train.”

On a rainy Monday morning, my train conductor—after all his obligatory announcements about arriving at Grand Central and what track we’re on—adds this helpful reminder. This five second addition helps 500 people have a better, drier, more efficient day.

We have the microphone more than we realize: most obviously in what we say and what we don’t say, and whether we choose to follow the script that’s given to us.

But we also hold it as we walk down the street, or into a shop, or walking past our co-workers: the eye contact we do or don’t make, the people with whom we do or do not share a smile, the decision to stop for a moment and really, truly listen to another human being.

What will you do with your microphone today?

Should We Boil Social Impact Down to One Number?

Kenya clinic blood pressure
Image source: The Kenyan Experience in Combating Non-Communicable Diseases, 2013

No, we should not.

Let me tell you why, with a story about how we keep track of our health.

Last week I attended the Financial Times Investing for Good USA Conference in New York. If you haven’t noticed, the FT is taking seriously the shift towards using money as a force for good. Their Moral Money reporting is getting a lot of column space and resources—they even have a newsletter (part of a paid FT subscription) with lots of great content.

During Q&A at the social impact measurement panel at this conference, a woman in the audience, sounding exasperated, asked whether social impact is like health: is it something so nuanced and complex that we can never fully understand it in a simple, clear and comparable fashion?

The implication seemed to be that until we can boil social impact down to a single number, like IRR, we can never really understand it.

I love the health analogy, but I disagree wholeheartedly with the conclusion.

How Do We Measure Health?

Let’s think for a moment about how we measure health. While a person’s health is complex, there are some basic, universal measures that indicate well-being: blood pressure, resting heart rate, BMI, cholesterol levels, respiratory function, and so on.

Think about the characteristics of these measures: they are easy to gather, we collect them directly from patients, and they can easily be compared.

We gather this data annually in a physical (and gather a subset of them every time we visit the doctor), and doctors and nurses use these data to get an overall sense patient well-being. If these measures are way off, a patient might be unwell and in need of further testing.

Some Core Principles of an Effective Measurement System

Let’s think about the core principles that are in evidence here, because they give us good guidelines for how to think about social impact measurement:

  • Find measures that apply broadly
  • Determine what good and bad ranges look like
  • Regularly gather primary data to understand how individual patients are faring
  • When those indicators are off target, go deeper with specialized measures

It feels obvious that doctors have a core set of things they can measure to understand well-being. At the same time, we are not scared off by the complexity underneath. Indeed, we recognize that we must master that complexity to truly help patients: the human body is complex, so we must be comfortable with complexity to understand it fully.

And so, in patient care, simplicity and complexity happily coexist.

The Core, Comparable Metrics of Social Impact

Similarly, for social impact measurement, there are broad indicators that can be easily compared (many of which align with the Impact Management Project and for which we’ve developed questions and benchmarks at 60 Decibels):

  • WHO is being served: income levels, access levels, gender, members of excluded groups, etc.
  • WHAT is their experience of the product: Net Promoter Score, customer effort score, etc.
  • HOW MUCH does the product or service improve their lives: meaningfulness of impact, other indicators of changes in well-being (income, confidence, safety, empowerment, etc.)

All of these data can be easily gathered directly from the people experiencing (or not experiencing) social impact. And, just like blood pressure, gathering this data from the actual people being served is a prerequisite to understanding whether a specific product or service is making a difference.

From the People Being Served

“From the actual people being served” bears underlining: if my doctor wants to understand my health, she wouldn’t be satisfied knowing the BMI or blood pressure data of people like me. Instead, she would use population data to understand what the healthy range was and compare that range to what she reads on her dial when I’m standing right in front of her.

That might seem obvious, but in social impact measurement we seem too easily convinced that studying similar interventions is good enough—that we can simply extrapolate that data to our investment and be done. The fact is, as in medicine, studying other, similar interventions is the starting line, not the finish line. When I arm myself with that desk research, and then couple it with what I learn about the lived experience of the people my impact investment is serving, then (and only then) am I in a position to understand the impact performance of my investment.

Conversely, if we never listen to the customers being served by our investment, we’re saying the equivalent of (at my hypothetical doctor’s appointment), “typically, 46 year old white men have a blood pressure of 125 / 85.” That’s good to know, but it tells me nothing about whether I’m eating too much salt or at risk of heart disease.

Even more obvious, we would never expect that a blood pressure reading or BMI, alone, would tell us everything we need to know a person’s health. So why are we so obsessed with finding a single, one-number measure of social impact? These simplifying measures are, at best, directional indicators of a deeper reality that lies beneath. Importantly, that is not the same thing as saying that all that complexity must can and should boil up to that single number.

Finally, let’s not be frustrated that we can’t compare everything to everything. After all, we can only compare lungs to other lungs, not to livers or kidneys. Despite this limitation, we are not powerless to deduce whether one person is healthier than another.

Embracing Simplicity and Complexity

That’s good news.

It tells us that, in human health, we are comfortable with embracing both simplicity and complexity. We understand that the human body is itself a system with countless underlying organs and sub-systems. We recognize the need to understand these systems at a micro and a macro level. When we do so, we are in a position to successfully manage human health.

We can and should be just as comfortable with the notion that social impact happens as part of complex systems; and we should be optimistic that a core set of simple, easy-to-measure, comparable indicators can give us an enormous amount of insight about actual, on-ground social impact. Like in human health, we should also embrace the need to understand this deeper complexity if we are serious about managing social impact performance. That means deep, specific data about my specific intervention, coupled with cross-cutting, universal measures that apply to all interventions.

A Glimpse of the Future

This is all well within our grasp.

The first step is to stop telling ourselves that there’s some magical shortcut between here and there. Our work, and the people we aim to serve, are too important, and the amount of capital coming towards social impact is too big, for us to aim to skip steps.

Most important, let us never forget is that this work is about real, actual, living people. These people are the locus of change. It is a core part of our job to listen to them so that we can truly understand their perspective and their lived experience.

This is the only way we can manage social impact performance to achieve meaningful better outcomes.

And someday soon, doing all of this will be as normal and as natural as taking someone’s pulse or their blood pressure.

The Fallacy of Long-Term Career Goals

I’ve always been terrible at setting long-term career goals. To start, I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up (outside of maybe a veterinarian, because I loved animals). That felt like a profound shortcoming to my 10-year old and 20-year-old selves.

Partially this was because the list of “grown up jobs” that I’d heard of was absurdly short: teacher, doctor, lawyer, fireman, policeman, musician…maybe architect on a good day.

But the real problem was the half-baked notion that this process works from the outside in.

Done properly, it’s the other way around.

I know I’m in the right job if I’m thriving and learning, if I’m creating things of substance that I believe in, and if I’m working with great people. That’s the whole enchilada.

If you’re finding it hard to find all those things at once, that’s OK. Start with great people and find a way to work with them. The rest will follow.

And, if you’re wondering what I mean by “thriving and learning:”

Thriving is doing your best work. Work that makes you stand out, work you get lost in because you’re in the zone when you’re doing it, work that people keep noticing—whether in how you show up or what you delivered. Pay attention to this praise, especially if it’s for things that come easily to you. That is the kernel of you at your best.

And learning? It’s self-explanatory, and it should be non-negotiable. It is, and always will be, the only path to growth.

The Monkey Bars

It took my youngest daughter longer than her friends to be able to do the monkey bars.

Seeing her now, doing them joyfully, I often wonder why exactly she persisted. How was it that seeing other kids ahead of her was motivating rather than discouraging?

More than most things, the monkey bars are binary. Before you can do them, you’re stuck on one side, hanging and falling, and not really improving. Then, one day, you cross a chasm—from not doing to doing. Once on the other side, it’s deeply self-reinforcing: you’re having a blast with your friends, and you’re getting stronger and stronger.

There are two lessons here:

  1. Most things are like monkey bars: the act of doing the activity itself is the source of improvement, so the best thing you can do is start.
  2. One of the most valuable things we can do is to encourage people who are just shy of the starting line, and help them to believe in themselves.

To Do List Hack

I’m terrible at To Do lists.

I’ve tried countless approaches of keeping lists of things I have to do. Each time, a few weeks or a few months in, the lists fill up, overflow, and then mutate. They transform into an ugly, too-long litany of all the things I never got done.

Once that happens, I stop using them daily, meaning they’re essentially useless.

For a while I thought this was a software problem. Most To Do list software have endless features I don’t use. For the way my brain and my days work, I don’t want a project management solution, I just want a list (or a few lists).

I had some success with uber-simple software: I used Wunderlist successfully for more than a year, and Remember the Milk always seems appealing.

But, in the end, these too broke down. My system reverted to the tried-and-true combination of inconsistent handwritten lists in notebooks + my email inbox (where emails marked unread are a “to do” of one kind or another). This really doesn’t work: it reinforces a tendency to focus on urgent over important things, and it also results in some stuff slipping through the cracks.

So I’m at it again, using Asana thanks to peer pressure from my 60 Decibels teammates, but intentionally using 1/100th of the feature set. It’s only working because of a great, super-simple hack suggested by a teammate.

For each of my To Do lists (I have four of them, three for work and one personal), I was told to create the following four categories:


This week

Next week

Longer term

That’s the hack. It’s absurdly simple, I know. But it’s really working.

What’s great is that, without using lots of features, dependencies or due dates, this helps me use my lists for both tracking and prioritization. It also forces me, in a very direct way (and in a way that due dates never have) to be clear with myself about what I’m going to get done today, this week, next week, or later. Plus, since most real-life tasks have multiple steps, this structure helps me track them easily without needing to put every step as a new To Do: instead, I just change a few words and slide the task from one category to another.

(For example:  I’ll have “Reach out to Samitha about scheduling a call this week” in the “Today” category.  After I email her, it change it to , “Follow up with Samitha about a meeting this week” and move it to the “This week” category)

I’m finding this hack to be the perfect middle ground between a single endless list with due dates (that I make up and ignore), and an elaborate, futile attempt to schedule and project manage everything—which feels a lot spending too much time on the list and too little time doing important work.

I hope this hack helps you too. Other ideas are welcome, just share them in the comments.

Great Questions

When we’re stuck with a problem we simply cannot solve, what we need is a great question.

The funny thing about a great question is that it is often hard to recognize.

It can feel slightly off topic.

Like a critique.

Or even downright irrelevant.

Like the person wasn’t fully hearing us and the core assumptions that we know to be true.

But sometimes, if we’re patient enough or stuck enough, we find ourselves sitting with a great question. It germinates in the back of our minds. We process it in the midst of doggedly re-treading the beaten path to our wrong answers.

And then, if we’re lucky, a eureka moment happens. We see something new. A door opens.

What that perfect question did was poke at the heart of a truth that wasn’t true, a strongly held assumption that was just plain wrong.

Suddenly, the impossible becomes possible.

We can’t predict when these moments will happen, but we can pay a bit more attention to off-beat questions before dismissing them.

How Much Impact Measurement is Enough?

Recently I was speaking with a sophisticated, experienced impact investor. She’s been investing impact capital for more than a decade. Her fund has a well-developed investment thesis and a clear impact measurement system.

This system, as I understood it, thoughtfully looks at preexisting research on social impact: things like whether a particular type of software improves learning outcomes for kids; or whether a given healthcare app results in better patient outcomes. In addition, post-investment, the companies she invests in study the efficacy of their offerings—it’s part of what is required by their (mostly) public sector customers. These studies test whether each company is replicating the results expected from the research.

However, in a few sectors, she’s not easily able to get this deeper data.  In that context, she asked me, “What’s your view? Do we really need more impact data?”

Meaning: in these sectors, they have good background research along with a general indication that the products being sold have a net positive impact on their customers. They just don’t know how those positive impacts translate into changes in customers’ lives. Isn’t that enough?

Why Are We Gathering Impact Data?

It depends, I replied, on why we’re gathering impact data.

If we’re doing it to gather evidence—to prove something—then by all means let’s gather only the data needed to cross the threshold of proof. After that, we should stop.

But what if that is not the right objective for impact measurement? The phrasing, “Do we really need more impact data?” assumes that gathering this data is at best a neutral activity for the business, and at worst it’s burdensome, a diversion of resources, and a distraction.

If this is the case, then managing it down to a minimum is the right thing to do.

Flipping the Question

My view, however, is that it’s high time we flipped her question from, “Do we really need more impact data?” to “Do I know all I need to know?”

“Do I know all I need to know?” about my customers, my beneficiaries, and how they experience my service?

“Do I know all I need to know?” to serve them better?

“Do I know all I need to know?” to create a deeper change in their lives, one that will both improve their well being and make them more likely to be loyal and to recommend my service to others?

We perpetually ask the wrong question because we’ve been trained to assume that social impact measurement will forever be a ponderous beast: large-scale, expensive studies that take years to deliver results. That heavyweight approach, the standard in our sector, is extremely useful in a very narrow set of cases. It’s also almost never the answer for growing, dynamic organizations that are still evolving how their solution can best serve customers.

Stop Taxing Social Businesses

For these sorts of social businesses, social impact measurement must be optimized for learning and improvement cycles. It must move as fast as these nimble, dynamic social businesses. It must feel like customer insights, and not like academic research.

If we fail to make this shift, impact measurement will forever be what it feels like today:  a compliance exercise that is a tax on social business, rather than a way to increase knowledge and insight. (More on this risk from my recent panel at the SOCAP conference)

Because, let’s be real: it’s hard enough to build a business that solves a social problem AND is financially viable. Adding a measurement tax onto that business makes no sense.

Conversely, if social impact measurement can help that business grow, improve, and better serve its customers (and yes, at any point feel free to substitute “nonprofit” or “community organization” for “social business”)…well then we’re really on to something.

A Real Example from Nigeria

Imagine, for example, that your social impact report helped you do real things, immediately. For Psaltry, a Nigerian company that helps smallholder cassava farmers, impact data gathered by our team at 60 Decibels helped Psaltry decide to open three new processing plants closer to customers (they discovered that customers’ earnings were taking a hit due to high transportation costs).  This same impact report uncovered that farmers had cashflow issues. Psaltry is using this data to help them get a loan from a local bank: the data helped them convince the bank of the need for this loan and how it would be used to help farmers. You can read their whole story here.

It’s Time to Stop Minimizing a Core Activity

The point, though, is not about this particular impact study—though the results, and the company’s responsiveness to them, are all outstanding.

The point is to ask ourselves: how have we allowed the data we gather about mission achievement to become peripheral to how we run mission-focused organizations? How have we created an approach to understanding our impact that should be minimized so we can “get on with our actual work?”

To the question, “How much social impact measurement is enough?” I’d give two answers:

One: if you’re doing it to prove something to someone, then gather the least data you can to demonstrate that proof, and then stop.

Two: if you’re doing it to learn, if you’re doing it to serve better, if you’re doing it to listen better, so that you can accelerate achievement of your mission, then I’d be really careful about marginalizing or minimizing it.

Instead, I’d bake it in right at the core.

The Stillness is the Rest

I travel a lot for work. After more that 20 years of these trips, I’ve learned that I have no special abilities at conquering time zones. If anything, because I keep a pretty fixed schedule at home, and try to sleep at least 7 (or more) hours every night, going to new time zones takes a lot out of me.

Things that help me adjust include: exercise, meditation before going to sleep, not looking at my laptop or phone within an hour of sleeping, earplugs, and, if I’m flying East, Benadryl. I wrote a post about these, with a bonus recommendation about the world’s best suitcase.

That collection of approaches notwithstanding, I still often find myself lying awake, either at the start of the night trying to fall asleep, or some time very early in the morning try to stay asleep.

When I find myself sleepless in Seattle (or Nairobi, or Bangalore), I will lie still and do some version of savasana (yoga corpse pose), with the intention of focusing on my breath going in and out. I often count my breaths in a cycle of eight, one breath corresponding to each finger on my hand (thumb, second, third, fourth, fifth, fourth, third, second…and then start again). I mix this with a progressive body scan, paying attention to one part of my body and then the next, focusing my attention on relaxing that part of the body, or feeling it bathed in warm light (Headspace has lots of great guided body scan meditations). Through all of this, I aim to keep my mind clear and not let myself get hijacked by each passing thought.

In truth, all of this helps, but that doesn’t mean it puts me to sleep. I spend a lot of time resetting myself, clearing my thoughts, breathing and counting…and then quietly getting frustrated that I’m both exhausted and awake.

When this happens, one new thought that has helped me a lot is: this stillness, right now, is the rest. My mind is clear, my body is relaxed, and that is what rest entails. It is enough.

It’s a freeing thought that can release me from the goal orientation / failure cycle that trying to fall asleep inevitably entails.

I’m am here.

I am breathing.

I am resting.

And that is good.