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Innovating with Integrity

April 27, 2011

Yesterday and today I am attending the Partners in Emergency Preparedness Conference organized by Washington State University in Tacoma. This annual event is well-attended and attracts a particularly progressive cross-section of public, private and non-profit sector practitioners as well as academics.

As you might imagine, the topics on offer at this year’s conference include several that might be considered “hot,” including social media, public-private collaboration, catastrophic event planning, and resilience. Most presenters seem to have taken account of the impact of the ongoing economic situation in addressing their topics, but none so far as I have seen or heard have explicitly addressed how we might measure the performance of our efforts in these areas.

Yesterday, Chris Bellavita let us in on a discussion he’s been having with a couple of his colleagues about the power of narrative as a means of expressing if not assessing the effectiveness of our efforts, especially those related to innovation or improvement. As this discussion illustrates, narrative has the advantage of distilling a great deal of complexity without losing context. Narrative also appeals to our rational sensibilities (order, structure, content) without overlooking the importance of our emotions (context, texture, feeling) in imprinting them on our individual and collective memories.

Unfortunately, despite its relatively concrete nature, narrative leaves us wonting when it comes to discreteness. How do we judge the relative value of competing or conflicting narratives? Doesn’t their very existence make it harder for us to know what’s really happening?

I got a glimpse of how we might address this dilemma even if we cannot resolve it completely from one of the final presenters on Tuesday. Tracy Connelly is an emergency preparedness training specialist for the Seattle Office of Emergency Management. Despite her self-admitted diminutive stature, “gender confusing” appearance, and “eighth grade reading ability” due to a life-long struggle with dyslexia, she’s a dynamo who really knows her subject yet is still unafraid to get to know the communities she wants to reach on their own terms.

Tracy’s presentation made it clear that she measures her own effectiveness in how many new people and groups her existing contacts help her reach and by the extent to which the communities she engages shape her own thinking and in doing so transform her program and its message. As a result, she’s managing to develop and deploy really innovative and successful interventions in some of Seattle’s most vulnerable, under-served and often hard-to-reach communities.

In a nutshell, Tracy’s outreach program and the effectiveness of her efforts rely on her personal integrity. Something as seemingly intangible as integrity can be measured simply by considering whether the people she’s reaching welcome her back and share her message with others. Now that would be a pretty good start all by itself, but Tracy also demonstrated the added value she gets from the new contacts and partnerships that develop from her relationships and the ways in which they have shaped her approach.

Most programs count the number of individuals or groups they reach. But they seldom consider what any small business could not afford to ignore: How many customers return? How many refer their friends and acquaintances? And how many new product or service offerings developed from the feedback these new and returning customers gave?

Just as no effective business can afford to rely solely on customer counts or gross sales to assess its performance, no effective public service can afford to ignore its impact on human and social capital. Stories help us get a handle on how our programs shape what people think and do. But the real test of our effectiveness comes down to what we do with the information that comes back to us through their interaction with us.

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