Every time I speak to an MBA class about thrivability (as I did recently), it’s only a matter of time before someone asks: how do you measure it? For some reason, it’s only MBAs who ask this.

As it happens, we hosted a Thrivability Montreal conversation about this question last year, with guest speaker Kristian Gareau, who was doing research on the topic for his Master’s program. I took detailed notes that evening, but until now I hadn’t yet synthesized them into a blog post. At the time, it didn’t seem as if we had come to solid enough conclusions, though there were many valuable insights that emerged. Actually, that may be the conversation’s conclusion in itself: thrivability is measured more in insights than in conclusions. After answering the MBAs several times since, those insights are finally coming into focus enough to share them here.

At the conversation, we started the evening exploring the multiple faces of thrivability:

  • It’s a way to see your organization – as a living system that you are part of but that is more than you.
  • It represents a goal and an intention – to enhance life’s ability to thrive at every level (individual, organization, customer, community, biosphere).
  • It’s a comprehensive operational strategy – informed by what we know about living systems, including the conditions needed for self-organization, emergence, collective intelligence, creativity and resilience.
  • It’s a set of practices – participatory, thoughtful, often playful, and always intentional in design.
  • It invites a certain stance or role – as a caring, compassionate steward of something alive, like a child or a garden.
  • And it suggests a certain perspective on work – most of all, as a path to community, learning, self-expression and positive impact in the world, as well as a source of income and status.

“How could we possibly measure that?” we wondered. What exactly would we be measuring? And what’s behind this urge to measure things, anyway? Maybe it’s an outdated compulsion to control everything, which may no longer be useful as we move into stewarding complexity and emergence.

As Kristian pointed out, though, “accounting is not neutral.” When you report on something – and when you don’t report on something else – there’s already a decision being made. Measuring thrivability would give it importance and attention. It would be a conscious decision to give it value.

He also explained that the root of the word “accounting” is the same as the French word “raconter” – to tell a story, to give an account. It’s less about counting and more about creating a narrative in support of greater understanding. Interesting.

Indeed, that perspective matched with AJ Javier’s. AJ is the Director of CLC Montreal, the beautiful language school that was our host for the conversation. He shared some of the ways he assesses the level of thrivability in his organization:

  • What’s the level of attractiveness? (“Thriving organizations have magnetism,” he said.) Are we attracting nice, conscientious people?
  • Do students feel more fully alive? Do they feel belonging? Do they come early? Do they stay late? Do they come to the optional events? Do they feel a sense of contribution to the community?
  • Is it absolutely evident that we value the team? Do staff feel listened to? Are they autonomous? Do teachers laugh together? Do they talk socially? If the staff are thriving, the students feel that.

These are the indicators that let him know that the conditions are in place for life to thrive at every level – for students, for staff, for the school itself, for the community. Not coincidentally, he senses a strong connection between this set of indicators and the school’s profitability.

This makes me think of Jack Stack, a management idol who wrote in the 1990s about the need for every business to identify their “one critical number.” For hotels, for example, it’s generally the occupancy rate. Stack tells a story about a restaurant owner who knew how much money he would make on any night by the wait time for a table at 8:30pm. For CLC, it might be the number of students present on Monday afternoons.

This “one critical number” is useful. But it doesn’t give any insight into what goes into it. It’s the vital signs – but not the health that you’re really after. At least as useful (if not more) would be some measure of the things that lead to high occupancy or a full restaurant or a language school full of students. Those are the factors AJ described. So we just need to find a way to measure those, right?

Here’s where we noticed that we were entering risky territory. What would be the effect if AJ introduced personality tests as part of the application process, in an effort to measure how “nice and conscientious” new students are? Imagine if he set targets for how often students arrive early for class, giving teachers bonuses for surpassing those objectives. What if he closely monitored the number of times teachers laugh together, charting and posting the results each week? Here’s where we have to ask: what would be altered or diminished through measuring it?

At this point in our conversation, we felt a little lost. The way to value thrivability is to measure it. But as soon as we measure it, we kill it.

And that’s the moment when Lynne Lamarche, our glorious graphic recorder, put the finishing touches on her drawing of our conversation. And suddenly we could see what she had been building all along: a radar screen.

There’s something potent about the idea of ongoing monitoring and awareness. It’s a different approach to measurement. It still gathers useful data, but it seems to interfere less with what’s being measured. And it’s more in line with how life works – continuously sensing and responding to changing conditions. The focus shifts from counting (alone) to recounting and shaping the unfolding story of the organization.

The implication is that everyone in the organization needs to become a “sensing organ,” attuned to the factors that indicate thrivability. There probably has to be some collective process to determine which factors deserve attention. And there have to be times and places for sharing the “data” and acting on it. All of that requires specific skills and structures, not to mention trust and transparency.

I’m not sure all of this is going to satisfy the MBA students. But my sense is that this is an important part of the practice of thrivability.

What do you think? What are the factors of thrivability in your work? And how do you sense them on an ongoing basis?

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