Bill Gates, in his Annual Letter from the Gates Foundation, wrote, “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.” In this essay, Gates makes the case that measurement is critical to the change process for the simple reason that regular assessment and feedback mechanisms allow you to see the small and incremental gains over the lifespan of a very long-term change initiative, like ending childhood hunger or eradicating polio around the world.
Assessment and feedback mechanisms are essential parts of all change initiatives, even those smaller in scale and scope than Bill Gates’ undertakings. William Rothwell, a professor of organization development, writes that organizational assessment “is the single most important step in any helping relationship – and consulting is a helping relationship – because the issues surfaced in assessment become the basis for subsequent action.” Rothwell goes on to say that a poorly executed assessment, or no assessment at all, can worsen the condition it was intended to help. “OD can focus on surfacing and solving problems or on pinpointing and leveraging strengths. Assessment is needed for either purpose.”
An important role of assessment and feedback in OD is that it acts as an intervention on its own. A practitioner is wise to recognize its potential unintended consequences. To this Rothwell writes, “Any effort to assess the organization is a change effort in its own right. Collecting data raises expectations for change.”
In his landmark research, Dr. David Cooperrider, founder of the Appreciative Inquiry movement, observed that the “mere act of inquiry in human systems can change a whole organization.” Dubbed the “mere measurement effect,” Cooperrider’s research demonstrated that “the very act of asking generative questions has profound impact in organizational systems. Inquiry and change are not separate moments.”
This “mere measurement effect” has the potential to have positive and negative consequences on an organization development effort. For instance, over the past decade, we’ve seen U.S. classrooms focus more on “teaching to the test” and focusing on subjects that are assessed by standardized testing, like math, to the exclusion of subjects that are not assessed like science. On the other hand, the measurement effect has had a positive impact on classrooms in Eagle County, Colorado, where teacher assessments have changed to include a variety of process and outcome measures and it is resulting in better performance by students.
In the 2013 annual letter, Gates uses Eagle County’s school system as an example of an organization where measurement is at the center of their change management initiatives. “I think the most critical change we can make in US K-12 education is to create teacher feedback systems like the one in Eagle County that are properly funded, high quality, and trusted by teachers. These measurement systems need to provide teachers with the tools to help support their professional development. The lessons from these efforts will help us improve all teacher education programs.”
Gates, B. (2013). Annual Letter 2013. Retrieved from https://www.gatesfoundation.org/Who-We-Are/Resources-and-Media/Annual-Letters-List/Annual-Letter-2013
Rothwell, W., Stavros, J., Sullivan, R., & Sullivan, A. (Eds.). (2015). Practicing organization development: A guide for leading change (4th ed.). San Diego, CA: Pfeiffer.
Rothwell, W., Stopper, A., Myers, J. (Eds.). (2017). Assessment and diagnosis for organization development: Powerful tools and perspectives for the OD practitioner. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Stravos, J., Godwin, L., & Cooperrider, D. (2015). Appreciative Inquiry. In Rothwell, W., Stavros, J., Sullivan, R., & Sullivan, A. (Eds.). (2015). Practicing organization development: A guide for leading change (4th ed.). San Diego, CA: Pfeiffer.