Not everything that can be counted counts

William Bruce Cameron's 1963 text, “Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking,” contained the following passage:
It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
This quote, "not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted," is often attributed to Albert Einstein which is incorrect. Nevertheless, the message is full of wisdom and worthy of our focus.

In today's environment we are pressured to deliver results and show impacts. Consequently, we are tempted to prioritize the selection of activities that have indicators that are reliably available and of good quality. We may unintentionally avoid tackling challenges that are difficult to measure because we want our achievements to be counted and recognized.

I recently participated in a planning process where we started by selecting indicators, then developing goals around the indicators. Some participants inquired about the process expressing that they are accustomed to setting goals (desirable results) then selecting or developing measures of success (indicators).

At the SFDPH Population Health Division we use four strategic questions (4SQ):
  1. What are we trying to accomplish and why? (goals aligned to organizational purpose and strategies)
  2. How do we measure success? (measures; may need development)
  3. What other conditions must exist? (assumptions, risks)
  4. How do we get there? (action planning and implementation)
In general, developing goals should precede selecting and developing indicators. If you start with indicators you run the risk of avoiding challenges that count but cannot be counted

Below is a graphic that we have adapted from the Results Leadership Group for our results-based lean approach that summarize this approach.

Results-based lean: Results-based approach to collective impact planning.

Not all is lost if one starts with indicators. Circle back and review your organizational purpose, mission, and strategy goals. The indicators may already fit within existing goals or strategic directions. Planning is an interactive, iterative process. Just review and adjust (i.e., part of any Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle).


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