I was recently invited by the Carnegie UK Trust to address a meeting of the Library Lab partners on the subject of “using impact to engage stakeholders in competitive environments”. These are the notes of my opening remarks for that session.
Using impact in applied environments
I think there are two main ways of looking at impact:
- Understanding the change you want to make in the world and planning effectively to make it, and;
- Using impact and evidence to convince others of the value of what you do.
I would argue that the former is critically important. Right at the heart of CILIP’s new Action Plan 2016-2020 is a logic chain which connects what we do to what our members do, to the impact they deliver for their users and society at large. This kind of ‘outcomes’ focus is essential in designing organisations that know what purpose they exist to serve, and particularly membership bodies, for whom the ’cause’ is fundamental to the relationship with members.
Guanxi and the currency of influence
I think there’s a basic design flaw in our approach to demonstrating impact to decision-makers.
There’s a line from Walt Whitman that says, “Logic and sermons will never convince”, and from experience I think he’s right. The point is that what people fundamentally respond to is people. I once had dinner with two Tory Baronesses, and I asked them ‘if you had to choose between influence and evidence, which you would choose?’.
And they both said influence, because if you don’t have that it doesn’t matter how good your evidence is. If they’re not disposed to hear and support you, then your facts and figures and case for support are worthless. (I’ve always been struck in the ‘elevator pitch’ argument by the fact that if you actually had 30 seconds in an elevator with a top-flight CEO, you’d be better off using it trying to establish a connection – a joke, a common interest, an interesting observation – which makes you memorable and positive in their mental calculus than you would trying to ‘pitch’ them your organisation. The pitch can come later when you’ve convinced them to meet you again!)
There’s a system in China called guanxi, which is an intricate framework of relationships, obligations, favours and duty. And even though I don’t think we have a name for it over here, I think we operate the same system (I think it is the real currency of the class system, in fact). So I think arguably the most important element of demonstrating impact in competitive environments is influence.
When you see it at work, influence – real influence – can be awesome. I have seen National Museum Directors secure a change in the law in a little less than a week thanks to the influence they wield.
Get the best numbers you can
And then of course once we have the influence we need the numbers. Every great leader I’ve ever met has their numbers down pat. In reality, all senior managers are salespeople – for the numbers to count, they have to be in the room in the first place. I think the same is true at every level – for them to believe in you, invest in you, they have to like and trust you.
Every single time I go to an Authority, or a school or a University that is investing in their libraries, there’s a cunning library leader who excels at building relationships. In a sector that has explicitly focused on being an impartial cipher between the user and the knowledge, it has been extremely hard for some of our community to learn to brag, to take credit.
The ‘impact’ business
But I also think we’ve allowed ourselves to be tied up in knots about impact:
The calculus of evidence is the darling of the political sphere, and more often than not, they use it as an evasive tactic. There’s a classic chinese civil service phrase which translates roughly as ‘we’ll need more evidence on that’ and it means that they want to kick it into the long grass.
From a funder’s perspective, I absolutely understand the impulse. I have read the thousands of funding bids that say ‘we want to do this because we want to’ or ‘because it is important’. So I know that we need to encourage people to articulate the ‘why’ of their ideas in terms of impact.
But as soon as you go down this road, you open up the inevitable slide into the cult of measurability. The reality is that impact is diffuse – like the root system of a tree, it happens in countless tiny ways, advancing by degrees. So in asking people to calculate impact – to lay claim to this or that explicit outcome – we’re asking them to lie to us.
I also think that in looking at impact through a single lens, we often miss the point. Many of our mobile library services have been shut down because on paper they look expensive. Why am I spending half a million quid to reach a few hundred people?
But if you look at it through the lens of public services, that half a million quid may save the NHS, social services, the police millions.
So to conclude, I think there are 3 things we need to do to improve our use of ‘impact’ in a competitive environment:
- Build relationships
- Use the figures that put us in the best possible light and;
- Adopt a more rounded approach to impact that supports and enhances other services