Generative Feedback: Changing How We Think About Change

Generative Feedback: Changing How We Think About Change

The splendid WorldChanging (where I periodically contribute) asked its contributors for thoughts on the question: "Looking Toward 2007: What's Next?" Here's what I wrote:

The key words I'm watching for 2007: generative feedback. Performance feedback that doesn't just track behavior; it drives it. And changes the way people talk and think about it.

Just as Prius owners inevitably change their driving behavior (whether they want to or not, whether they intend to watch their energy dashboard or not, and regardless of penalties or incentives) relevant performance feedback can engage stakeholders, steer strategy, and markedly improve implementation -- the Achilles heel of most sustainability initiatives.

JM Juran pegged this nearly 60 years ago, when he observed that "To be in a state of self-control, a person must know: what he [or she] is supposed to do, what he [or she] is actually doing, what choices [or she] has to improve results wherever necessary. If any of these three conditions are not met, a person cannot be held responsible." (I ask for a show of hands in every business audience I speak to: "How many of you have all three in your organization? How many have two? One?" The silence is consistently deafening and the unease palpable, as everyone realizes what a fix we're each/all in.)

Which is why it's such good news that technology is conspiring to break this logjam (even if management and organizational culture may still lag the opportunity):
  • Business intelligence "dashboards" are all the rage -- though how well and how fully they're used is open to question.

  • Web 2.0 mash-ups, with lots of stuff, both silly and cool, underway, including the geospatial opportunities being cataloged at Where 2.0 (GoogleEarth is the big dog but so much more is going on.)

  • What Worldchanger Jamais Cascio has dubbed the Participatory Panopticon.

Where's the cool feedback on the Worldchanging front?
  • Worldwatch Institute has been chronicling planetary "vital signs" for years (but hasn't yet made the leap to web interactivity)

  • FAO's FAOSTAT offers a richness of breadth and interactivity that one can only hope for from the US government, which is hopefully near the end of its recent phase of constraining rather than expanding information access

  • Gapminder's Êslick -- and dynamic -- views of Human Development Trends provides a fascinating way to understand trend and pattern. (For example, look at how differently income distribution changes as China, India and Brazil develop.)

  • Buckminster Fuller Institute's EarthScope offers up trending data in "geostories" rather than charts and graphs, providing dynamic maps with supporting graphics, imagery, sound, and text -- all inspired by Bucky's "GeoScope" vision, laid out in Critical Path.

  • Swivel's preview provides a cool tool for data mash-ups of all sorts

Here at Natural Logic, we're leading a coalition of organizations building a "Regional Sustainability Dashboard" for the San Francisco Bay Area. (And encouraging the formation of a public/private consortium to support real time regulation of environmental performance.) We're weaving a juicy web of technology-, data- and channel-partners, and we'd love to hear from you if you have a potential role to play.

The point of it all -- and the reason I talk about generative feedback -- is not the numbers are the graphs, but the conversations they engender and the mindsets they shift. My success metric: when one of our customers (or one of their stakeholders) says "Wow, I never thought of it that way before."

There'll be more about this -- coming soon -- on the Natural Logic web site, at Worldchanging, and of course at my blog (which has a new address; please take note). Stay tuned!

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Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is president and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc. -- offering advisory services and tools that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.