Put understanding first. Then (maybe) measure.

There is this knee-jerk reflect about "putting a number on everything". As if only numbers give a seal of credibility and authority. We should start being more vocal in resisting the tyranny of "measures first".

In social development we are grappling with many complex ideas, which can take many forms.

How can we measure them if we do not even understand them?

Too often we are putting measure before understanding, as if measure could tell us all that we need to know.

Not everything that matters can be measured... But, certainly, a lot more could be understood better. Too many time I saw effort in measuring go nowhere and preventing understanding. We need to FIRST capture
dynamics at play, see what changes look like, what is shaping it. Once you improve understanding, you can then measure some aspects of change. You will then able to cherry pick the aspects worth measuring - if need be. But of you start with measuring, then the measure itself will be compromised by the many assumptions made.

I wonder how many millions dollars and how many hours of time have been wasted in seeking to measure things that do not really matter, following the blueprint... resources which should have been invested in understanding.

Some feel that "measures improve accountability". Yes, they can help, but only if there is a clear understanding about what is measured. Otherwise, numbers can easily obfuscate reality (as anyone good at working  with numbers knows!). Accountability is not only about measures. Sharing understanding is a great way to increase accountability and dialogue. Drawing together a map of "how change happens" can generate stronger accountability than a measure. A "rich picture diagram" (as used in soft system analysis, for example) can document what does change look like... What drives it... How do things connect.

The initial rich picture can be just a brainstorming. But as experience accumulates around it, more factors and evidence will be captured, and the pictures can become even richer. Good rich pictures capture understanding. And they reveal the system behind. Understanding complexity requires to appreciate, document systems.

Many participatory tools had grasped this, well before "system theory", "complexity", "adaptive development" started to become fashionable. There is a lot of wisdom in these tools. They can generate accountability, learning.. they can distill evidence. And, if need arises, they can be linked to meaningful measures. 

You can go from understanding to measure. But the opposite, going from a preset measure towards understanding, is not possible. It is like trying to look at a landscape with horse blinders.

Yet these participatory tools, so good at generating understanding, are increasingly eroded.

Should we start insisting for "understanding first" (and only then, and if need be, measure?) rather than accepting the tyranny of "measure first"?

And I do love numbers! But I love numbers which add meaning, which really pin down aspects worth drilling into. Not the numbers and the measures that steal the time and resources that should be devoted to understanding.

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Comment by Rituu B Nanda on February 21, 2021 at 8:44

Hi Silva, thanks for taking out time to post the blog. Please would you have an example to share from your experience. Warm greetings!

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