The quantum mechanics of intentions (Part 2)

I’ve been thinking more about my post from last week, trying to figure out why I found myself questioning the value of good intentions. As my friend Greta rightly pointed out on Twitter,

“I believe that our intentions, objectives, or ‘passionate purposes’ make all the difference, Sasha. They guide us internally and have a lasting effect on all those with whom we connect.”

That’s right.

So how to resolve the tension between good intentions that mean little to the person whose life isn’t any better, and knowing in our gut that that if we are serious about making the world a better place then we must take our intentions seriously?

Where I’ve landed up is:

Intentions, if you just take a snapshot, might not matter much.

At a moment in time, the fidelity of that intention, from its genesis in the person deploying capital to the lived experience of the person served by that organization, is not necessarily that high. Intention can get lost in an impact investment just like it can get lost in a game of telephone, an ad campaign or, dare I say, a blog post.

However intention is powerful, maybe even unstoppable, when observed through the lens of time.

True intentions, strong intentions, deeply-held intentions cause those holding them to focus deeply on an outcome.

That focus results in curiosity.

That curiosity results in inquiry.

That inquiry results in examination of what’s really happening all the way down the line.

That examination leads to dissatisfaction if results are not being delivered. It leads to a rise in expectations and a drive to find better answers.

When it comes to creating social impact, that intention may in fact be the only thing that leads to an improvement cycle – because external forces driving to better results are weak (poor feedback loops in terms of the data that typically comes back; huge power imbalance between those providing capital and those, hopefully, benefiting from it).

Intention, then, is the engine of our own cycle of improvement. As builders of new solutions, new companies, new NGOs, new investment funds that are trying to push the frontiers of social change, of business, of markets, of inclusive economies, our intentions are what push us to be dissatisfied with “better than before.” They fuel us through the dips and the bumps and help us turn around when we hit dead ends. Our intentions, held by us and shared by those around us, give us the strength to keep on building.

Old Dog, New Tricks

old dogs, new tricks

It is simply not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Yes, you might not be able to teach an old dog to run as fast, or jump as high, or even see as well. Old has its disadvantages, to be sure. But old dogs are actually better than young ones at learning new tricks: they have better attention spans, and are less easily distracted.

No, the old dog’s problem is the old tricks: having spent a lifetime getting positive reinforcement for those old tricks, she just can’t seem to let them go.

If you are one of my many non-dog readers, think about it for a minute: isn’t what got us here all our old tricks? And aren’t we quite well-trained to seek the praise get when we do them?

Couple the power of that lifetime of reinforcement with our recommended daily allowance of pride, fear, unwillingness to admit fallibility and surrender authority. Then top that with a cherry of the smidge of shame we anticipate if we try something new and unproven in front of other dogs. After all of that, we may not even know if we’re any good at new tricks, because there’s so much underbrush to clear away before we even let ourselves get started.

Perhaps we can motivate ourselves by another adage, this one less famous but more useful: if we fight for our limitations and win, our prize is that we get to keep them.

The Walk-Talk Gap

“Change is hard.”

“You’ve got to show up every day.”

“To learn new skills, you must to push through a period of incompetence.”

“Self-knowledge is hard-won.”

“True acts of leadership are rarely praised.”

“We only grow when we’re willing to let go of some of our most deeply held beliefs.”

“Sometimes you just have to compromise.”

I’m reminded of the time I spent in Indonesia nearly 20 years ago, and my going-in expectations about learning Bahasa Indonesia, the fifth language I had studied.

“I’m good at languages,” I thought, “so this shouldn’t be so hard.”

And then I remember the blindingly obvious observation I made about a week in: how, to speak this new language, I’d have to learn a new word for nearly every single thing on the planet: types of food, trees, animals, verbs, possessive…the list was endless.

As if there was going to be some way to skip those steps.

Just because we possess hard-won knowledge of what the path looks like from here to there, just because we’ve walked that path a few times before, does not mean it will be a breeze to walk the path this time. Far from it. It just means that we might walk it with a bit more perspective and perseverance, a dash more courage and determination.

Being in the trough, though, that valley in which we find ourselves face-to-face with an important compromise, feedback that cuts deep, or the recognition that, this time, the person who is set in his ways is us…

The question we’re faced with at that moment is the only one that matters: this time, are we going to be willing to do the hard work?

Symptoms and causes

You tweak your knee and start limping a little, only to find that your lower back on the other side starts to ache.

Your job has gotten overwhelming, you are working too many hours, and now, no matter what kind of day you had, you’re finding it hard to get a good night’s sleep.

Two colleagues have misaligned expectations for who will do what, the deliverables get botched, and, going into the next client presentation, they are reticent to work together.

We’re all told to work on the root cause, and not just the symptoms. But often the symptoms become just as real as the thing that caused them – whether pain in your back, learned anxiety, or another deliverable that’s not up to snuff.

If the thing you can work on today is the symptom, and you know how to do that work, then that’s the right place to start.

Often, we behave our way into new attitudes, not the other way around.

 

Perseverate

Perseverate: to repeat or prolong an action, thought, or utterance after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased.

Put more simply, it’s continuing to react in the same way even though the situation is different.

It’s the narrative that says:

“We need this in order to…”

“I know I’m the kind of person who…”

“I always…”

Not always.

Maybe not even today.

A Bad Joke About Marketing and Communications

A marketer and a communications professional walk into a bar.

“You have any new stories?” asks the communications professional, harkening back to his days as a journalist and imagining breaking news.

“I’ve got this story,” replies the marketer. “And this other one and a third one.”

The communications professional shakes his head and sighs. “Not new!” he barks. “How many times do we need to go over this? We already wrote about all of those. Don’t you understand? We need NEW stories to tell, to keep our audience engaged.”

The marketer looks down, chastened.

And then she takes a deep breath, musters her courage, and says, “But…even though we’ve told those sorts of stories already, our audience isn’t behaving differently. Not yet. Some of them are, just a few. I think we should keep at it.”

“Keep at what?”

“Keep pushing to make a change – in their actions, in their perception, in the conversation they’re having. That’s what matters, isn’t it?”

 

It’s not a great joke. It’s a pretty terrible joke, actually.

But, if you’re a producer of content, or working in a nonprofit or a business that has a story to tell, you see these two characters have this conversation every day (even if just in your head).

The died-in-the-wool communications professional, properly trained as a journalist or an editor, thinks about phrases like “exclusive” and “this just in!” He imagines big stories with new angles, things that have the chance to break through all the noise and get everyone’s attention.

The marketer, on the other hand, is thinking on a different level. She’s more interested in speaking to a very specific audience and chipping away, day by day, with a consistent message designed to drive a specific set of actions with that audience. She doesn’t care much about “everyone.”

Both the communicator and the marketer trade in stories, and both of them have important roles to play. The risk is that the hunt for the ‘next big story’ brings with it lots of places to hide, since 99% of stories (no matter how good they are) don’t break through, and since even breakthroughs are often like fireworks—beautiful, but ephemeral.

In the end, it’s really really hard to let yourself off the hook if your metric is demonstrable change in the attitudes and behaviors of the people who matter most to you.

And that’s no joke.

Three Realities

Consider three realities:

  1. Who you are
  2. Who you think you are
  3. Who others think you are

Consider three sources of information:

  1. The actions you take
  2. What you see about the actions you take
  3. What those around you see and hear about the actions you take

It’s nice to think that the stories about us are written all around number 1 type things. It’s nice to believe that who people see us to be is who we really are.

In truth, people form and affirm impressions based on what they see and hear about the actions we take. So, to change minds, we must change what people see and hear.

This starts, every time, by doing great work. Work full of care and love and conviction and joy. If we don’t do that, then there really is no point, is there?

But that is not enough.

A good friend once told me that we should think of ourselves as Sherpas who must scale the mountain twice: once as we do good work, and once as we care for the story that is told about this work.

It might feel challenging, even disingenuous, to consciously think about what people see and hear about us: shouldn’t we just do great work and have that speak for itself?

Yes, and no.

All work arrives with a story wrapper, and part of that story is the story of you.

There’s no harm in directly attending to that story as well, especially if there’s a big gap between what you do and what is directly seen and heard by those whose minds you seek to change.

 

(Related: it’s also the case that “who we are” and “the stories we tell ourselves about who we are” also aren’t one and the same thing. But that’s a post for another day).

A New Algorithm

The definition of the word algorithm is “a process that solves a recurrent problem.”

We come up against recurrent problems all the time. Here’s a list of things that are decidedly not a process:

. Wishing the problem didn’t keep cropping up

. Continuing to do things in the same way

. Ignoring the problem

. Working on other, smaller issues

. Getting frustrated

. Keeping your best ideas about a better process to yourself

. Talking about a new process, acting like you care a lot about doing things differently, but then continuing to act in the old ways

. Complaining

. Shooting down suggestions about doing things differently

. Blaming the people around you for not solving the problem

Your recurrent problems deserve a new algorithm.

Uncorrelated Impact Understanding

Not long ago, I was speaking to a group of sophisticated impact investors from across the spectrum: everything from fully liquid, market-beating financial return expectations to market builders focused on creating social impact who are open to a broader range of financial returns.

The focus of my talk was Acumen’s work on Lean Data, which is our industry-leading approach to gathering customer data at scale. We’re cracking the nut on using technology to give voice to tens of thousands of customers in ways that allow companies to serve them better. I believe that this will, over time, help the sector as a whole deploy more capital to more opportunities that have more social impact. It’s exciting.

But before digging in to the details of Lean Data, I started the talk with an assertion:

The seriousness with which you work to understand impact should be uncorrelated with your expectations around financial return.

I actually said this twice, because we’re so used to talking about correlations (positive or negative) between social impact and financial returns that I wanted to be very clear what I was, and was not, talking about.

My point is, if you say you are in the business of creating impact, then, irrespective of the instrument you use, the financial returns you expect, and the risk you’re willing to take, you’ve got to be serious about understanding impact.

Interestingly, I heard some resistance on this point. The resistance mostly took the form of “I know impact when I see it” or, “why would I waste time on this, it will just distract me from doing the real work?”

I believe there are some cases in which we really understand impact, but I believe those are the exception. Indeed we are so quick to say “we know enough” in a world in which we know shockingly little.

For example, take the $800 billion spent annually by the U.S. government. Peter Orszag, and Jim Nussle, who successively ran the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, write in Moneyball for Government that “Less than one dollar out of every $100 the federal government spends is backed by even the most basic evidence that money is being spent wisely.”

Less than $8 billion of the $800 billion spent annually by the U.S. government is backed “by even the most basic evidence?” Wow. Color me unpersuaded by the argument that we generally know enough.

I think what’s really going on is that we:

Overestimate how much we know

Overestimate the cost of getting great data – because approaches that came before Lean Data typically cost 100x as much

Create an artificial distinction between “creating customer value” and “creating social impact”

Assume that, no matter what anyone says, this is about marketing and dealing with funders, not about learning

Underestimate the value of what we can learn.

On top of this, I worry that we say too lightly that we’re in the business of creating social change, or we assume that this “caring about impact” stuff should be left to the folks who are on the frontiers of solving tough, challenging problems in innovative ways.

The truth is, we are quick to celebrate and advocate for more money walking through the “I (also) want to create social impact” door and then get awfully timid talking about whether that impact is getting created or, more broadly, how much we understand about the connection between the investment, the intervention and the impact it creates.

Caring about impact doesn’t mean you don’t understand how to make money. It doesn’t mean you’re not a serious investor. It doesn’t mean that you’re giving something up.

It’s simply saying: this is who I am, this is what I do. I’m in the business of creating massive positive change in the world. And I know how to do that better than anyone.

You can say all of those things and not blink for a second when someone asks you what your financial returns are going to be.

If we are in the business of change, then we have to be in the business of understanding how change happens.

The Sunscreen Effect

As an adult, I’ve finally learned to put on sunscreen regularly. I lather some on every morning before heading to work, I apply it liberally before heading out to the pool, heck, I even wear sun shirts.

But reapplying after a few hours, or after a run or a swim? I’m not so good at that. Once I’m all wet, or sandy, or both, it just feels like a chore, and I tell myself that the first coat was good enough and waterproof enough.

So it goes with ideas as well.

We have an initial exposure to a new idea, so we diligently engage with it. It helps us in some way, changes our perspective or gives us some new tactics, and we feel good.

The initial impact is important, but where deep, more fundamental change comes from is re-exposure and re-application. Even rereading that same idea at a different moment will allow you to interact with it from a new perspective and have it affect you in a new way.

This has implications for how we interact with ideas that feel new and important, and it also impacts our approach to spreading ideas: it’s not necessary, or helpful, to say something new each and every time, because your audience needs to hear something lots of times and lots of ways for a new and important idea to really seep in.

Like, say, this gem from Seth Godin, which I’ve heard a hundred times in a hundred ways, and I still need to be reminded of it a hundred more times:

I don’t blog every day because I have a good idea.

I have a good idea because I blog every day.

Or the wisdom I heard from Thulsiraj Ravilla yesterday while speaking to him about the importance of values to the Aravind Eye Care System, which has given sight to millions, and that I got to visit for the first time last week in Madurai, India:

Values mean nothing if individuals do not put them into practice through their actions.

There are truths we have all been exposed to, things that we know to be real and important, that we let ourselves dabble with and then dropped before they could really impact us.

It’s time to reapply.