What international development can teach businesses about metrics

[Editor's note: This is the third in a multi-part series that examines the pitfalls of sustainability measurements while drawing on lessons learned from outside the business world. For additional context, see the first installments here and here.]

Since this series' last installment, where we identified several measurement pitfalls the sustainability world should avoid, GreenBiz released the 2013 State of Green Business report and a corresponding new set of measures to capture it.

The report describes how businesses are transforming for the new normal of a world that is increasingly volatile, climatically unstable and interconnected.  

So as a reflection of our changing world -- and sustainable business along with it -- we chose one complex problem for Part III's "Lessons Learned" about metrics: global poverty.

Since 2000, the International Development (ID) community's battle to end (or substantially reduce) poverty by 2015 has played out on the world stage. There have been delays, defeats and some solid accomplishments. In doing so, the development community's thinking has evolved about what best constitutes effective aid and how to know whether it's working.

We find significant lessons for the sustainable business world in the story of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the groundbreaking shift towards metrics that occurred with the 2008 Accra Agenda for Action. The ID community has been considering questions of direction towards greater levels of sustainability and how to measure their actual effectiveness over 13 long years of debate and trial and error. We could learn from their longer experience with sustainability goals and metrics.

Pitfall 5: Setting and starting out on goals without doing the groundwork to assess what -- and who -- are being left out. As sustainability can be more complex than it initially appears, goal setting while pursuing it can be even more challenging.

The ID field experienced painful growing pains from what happens when goals, and the initial metrics chosen to evaluate progress towards them, fail to capture what's really important for all stakeholders.

Next page: The eight Millennium Development Goals