Measuring, making meaning and matchsticks

Using an unusual method for research on at-risk populations in a South American barrio, a friend watched as community members filed forward and placed individual matchsticks in specific areas of the map, thus creating a population density chart for her evaluation project. As one individual stepped up he broke the matchstick in half, said “this is me”, placed it on the map, and then walked away. Apparently all gathered around the table collectively held their breath - then a shared sigh passed through the room.

Managing and leading must always be about measuring at some point. Organizations have no reason to exist unless they are producing results, assessing them, then adapting and changing to produce even better results. If businesses don’t do this they die (and rightfully so). If those in the social sector don’t do this they are irrelevant, wasteful and breed cynicism.

There is no quantifiable result for that broken man who dropped his match fragments on the map, but the story is very powerful. A major NGO might invest millions in community development projects, but the numbers are meaningless compared to the real value of one story like this one, certainly in terms of the potential for raising funds.

Stories require serious responsibility on the part of the storyteller because stories are easy to manipulate (or even make up). When we claim that "this really happened" an entire new dimension of meaning is presented to the listener.

The fall can be painful when integrity is sacrificed. A young woman in the Northwest U.S. recently claimed someone else had thrown acid at her face. Her pathetic scarred face, photographed sitting in a hospital bed, generated sympathy and donations until the truth emerged - she had done it to herself, for unknown reasons. Meaning shifted dramatically.

Sometimes, if a story is too good to be true, it probably isn't. And, we should find meaning in the real stories with care. A solid story is worth a thousand numbers.

So how do we measure the meaning of human beings? Leaders influence followers with stories much more than with numbers. Much of leadership is making meaning. (Dick Ellsworth and Mike Csikszentmihalyi used to teach a great course at Claremont on this very topic.)

So make meaning with matchsticks in mind ... carefully and with integrity.