Indicators and Assumptions

I’ve talked a bit about indicators, and I mentioned at the end of the previous pose that I want to get to leadership again. In that, I’ve also mentioned that indicators are the expressions of assumptions, and I want to explore that notion even further with this post. At the end, I want to show that leadership is important in shaping systems.

As things turn out, there are ways that can help us get to the assumptions in the things and events we see around us. Along the way, the role of indicators will be brought in to demonstrate how our mental models get drawn out.

The model described is adapted from Sohail Inayatullah’s Causal Layered Analysis, and there is a process about it:

1. What – what’s going on in the present day;

2. Why – describing why some of those events have occurred;

3. What assumptions – describing some of the structural reasons behind those events;

4. Why assumptions – describing why the assumptions behind structural reasons have arose.

Indicators tend to come into the picture when thinking about the second and third questions. Let’s start with a hypothetical situation; a country where schoolchildren commit suicide. In some countries, this isn’t hypothetical – it’s real; in countries such as South Korea, or China or India, where a lot of emphasis is placed on a single exam – the stresses on students can be enormous.

The answer that “stress is a cause of student suicide” brings us to the second question of “why” a phenomena happens. And here, we can ask about the entire things that contribute to stress – how teachers and principals are geared towards better student performance; how the education system sieves out students through grades; how universities weigh a national exam very highly, and so on. Already at this level, we are thinking in terms of the incentive structure in society – how people are rewarded (or not) depending on how well they do in the national examination; how a university education is seen as an important stepping stone in contrast to the other kinds of higher education that might exist in technical schools or apprenticeship, or even artistic or sport schools and so on. Indicators measure something, but they measure the things we want to measure.

The third question asking for the assumptions behind the indicators is also another way of asking what do we value, or what we think is important and thus requiring indicators to track them. If we believe that a few figures are sufficient for people to be evaluated, then a system of examination and grade-emphasis should not be too surprising. If we believe that people ought to be meaningful actors in the economy above other things, then education will take on a mission-critical basis. If we don’t believe that education and economy ought to be linked, then the emphasis of education will be very different. If we believe the economy and materialism ought to be the focus of our lives, then all other systems in society would become intricately bound by it.

The last question asks about why these assumptions should be present at all. The question provides a basis for reflection about why societies are the way they are. One assumption could be a negative assumption of human nature – that people are inherently animals unable to rise above their animal selves; another assumption could be positive – that people are the sum of their biological characters and the social structures they have established for themselves. There are other assumptions – one of them could be that a society’s survival is dictated largely by economic parameters above other things; that an individual should largely be constrained by the collective. Opposing those assumptions could be that people have inherent worth and that it’s up to the collective to bring out the inherent worth; or that individuals should be free to decide their own choices in life. There are many possible assumptions out there in the universe of belief systems. The assumptions can certainly interact with one another. The assumptions about information systems are also relevant here – whether there are single truths or multiple truths; whether people are inherently rational or emotive; whether certainty is possible.

I claim here that assumptions and indicators are intricately linked. There is a point here that’s not often explicitly stated, and it’s that indicators have to be interpreted. Facts don’t speak for themselves and here, I’m of the position that there can be multiple truths. All of these might be rigorous and fascinating in theory. In practise, urgency and reality requires people to make decisions. This is the first real aspect to this, and I won’t be able to talk much about this yet. There is a second aspect that I do want to explore further, and this has to do with how assumptions can be changed. As usual, I will not be able to plunge into the topic immediately, but to think in small, concrete steps towards building a framework to think about change in organizations.

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