Every time I speak to an MBA class about thrivability (as I did recently), it’s only a matter of time before someone asks: how do you measure it?  For some reason, it’s only MBAs who ask this.

As it happens, we hosted a Thrivability Montreal conversation about this question last year, with guest speaker Kristian Gareau, who was doing research on the topic for his Master’s program.  I took detailed notes that evening, but until now I hadn’t yet synthesized them into a blog post.  At the time, it didn’t seem as if we had come to solid enough conclusions, though there were many valuable insights that emerged.  Actually, that may be the conversation’s conclusion in itself: thrivability is measured more in insights than in conclusions.  After answering the MBAs several times since, those insights are finally coming into focus enough to share them here.

At the conversation, we started the evening exploring the multiple faces of thrivability:

  • It’s a way to see your organization – as a living system that you are part of but that is more than you.
  • It represents a goal and an intention – to enhance life’s ability to thrive at every level (individual, organization, customer, community, biosphere).
  • It’s a comprehensive operational strategy – informed by what we know about living systems, including the conditions needed for self-organization, emergence, collective intelligence, creativity and resilience.
  • It’s a set of practices – participatory, thoughtful, often playful, and always intentional in design.
  • It invites a certain stance or role – as a caring, compassionate steward of something alive, like a child or a garden.
  • And it suggests a certain perspective on work – most of all, as a path to community, learning, self-expression and positive impact in the world, as well as a source of income and status.

“How could we possibly measure that?” we wondered.  What exactly would we be measuring?  And what’s behind this urge to measure things, anyway?  Maybe it’s an outdated compulsion to control everything, which may no longer be useful as we move into stewarding complexity and emergence.

As Kristian pointed out, though, “accounting is not neutral.”  When you report on something – and when you don’t report on something else – there’s already a decision being made.  Measuring thrivability would give it importance and attention.  It would be a conscious decision to give it value.

He also explained that the root of the word “accounting” is the same as the French word “raconter” – to tell a story, to give an account.  It’s less about counting and more about creating a narrative in support of greater understanding.  Interesting.

Indeed, that perspective matched with AJ Javier’s.  AJ is the Director of CLC Montreal, the beautiful language school that was our host for the conversation.  He shared some of the ways he assesses the level of thrivability in his organization:

  • What’s the level of attractiveness? (“Thriving organizations have magnetism,” he said.) Are we attracting nice, conscientious people?
  • Do students feel more fully alive? Do they feel belonging? Do they come early? Do they stay late? Do they come to the optional events?  Do they feel a sense of contribution to the community?
  • Is it absolutely evident that we value the team?  Do staff feel listened to?  Are they autonomous?  Do teachers laugh together? Do they talk socially?  If the staff are thriving, the students feel that.

These are the indicators that let him know that the conditions are in place for life to thrive at every level – for students, for staff, for the school itself, for the community.  Not coincidentally, he senses a strong connection between this set of indicators and the school’s profitability.

This makes me think of Jack Stack, a management idol who wrote in the 1990s about the need for every business to identify their “one critical number.”  For hotels, for example, it’s generally the occupancy rate.  Stack tells a story about a restaurant owner who knew how much money he would make on any night by the wait time for a table at 8:30pm.  For CLC, it might be the number of students present on Monday afternoons.

This “one critical number” is useful.  But it doesn’t give any insight into what goes into it.  It’s the vital signs – but not the health that you’re really after.  At least as useful (if not more) would be some measure of the things that lead to high occupancy or a full restaurant or a language school full of students.  Those are the factors AJ described.  So we just need to find a way to measure those, right?

Here’s where we noticed that we were entering risky territory.  What would be the effect if AJ introduced personality tests as part of the application process, in an effort to measure how “nice and conscientious” new students are?  Imagine if he set targets for how often students arrive early for class, giving teachers bonuses for surpassing those objectives.  What if he closely monitored the number of times teachers laugh together, charting and posting the results each week?  Here’s where we have to ask: what would be altered or diminished through measuring it?

At this point in our conversation, we felt a little lost.  The way to value thrivability is to measure it.  But as soon as we measure it, we kill it.

And that’s the moment when Lynne Lamarche, our glorious graphic recorder, put the finishing touches on her drawing of our conversation.  And suddenly we could see what she had been building all along: a radar screen.

There’s something potent about the idea of ongoing monitoring and awareness.  It’s a different approach to measurement.  It still gathers useful data, but it seems to interfere less with what’s being measured.  And it’s more in line with how life works – continuously sensing and responding to changing conditions.  The focus shifts from counting (alone) to recounting and shaping the unfolding story of the organization.

The implication is that everyone in the organization needs to become a “sensing organ,” attuned to the factors that indicate thrivability.  There probably has to be some collective process to determine which factors deserve attention.  And there have to be times and places for sharing the “data” and acting on it.  All of that requires specific skills and structures, not to mention trust and transparency.

I’m not sure all of this is going to satisfy the MBA students.  But my sense is that this is an important part of the practice of thrivability.

What do you think?  What are the factors of thrivability in your work?  And how do you sense them on an ongoing basis?


7 replies
  1. Nicolas Stampf
    Nicolas Stampf says:

    Interesting. Very. Have you had a look into positive psychology and Characters, Strengths and Virtues and possibly 1) how thrivability might relate to them then 2) how to measure its underlying CSV components (should there’s be some. I’m quite sure there is)?

    • Michelle Holliday
      Michelle Holliday says:

      I haven’t looked into this, Nicolas. Thanks for the suggestion! Do you have some initial thoughts about this?

      • Nicolas Stampf
        Nicolas Stampf says:

        As I haven’t read your book (yet. well, hmm.. I have too much to read already 😉 sorry, no I don’t have more for now. Some other pointers maybe:
        – the website to assess your stronger CSVs: http://www.viacharacter.org/www/ (free!)
        – details of each CSV: http://www.viacharacter.org/www/Reports-Courses-Resources/Resources/Character-Strength-Fact-Sheets
        – About: http://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character

        which states: The VIA Survey is a psychometrically validated personality test that measures an individual’s character strengths. Character strengths are viewed as our positive personality in that they are our core capacities for thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that can bring benefit to us and others.

        Go find what underlies “thrivability” in that. If Thrivability is a “higher level of happiness”, then any of the CSV can play a role and it all depends on who you are (each person is triggerred by different strengths or good at different ones).

        Now, one could assess one’s own level of thriving by assessing one’s environment/work/family as to how much of the preferred CSVs it provides to each people.
        – if stimulis are provided in the CSVs I prefer, my thrivability would be high
        – if stimulis are provided in the CSVs I’m less inclined to, the thrivability is lower

        From my own results, I guess I’d thrive the most if you give me opportunities to shine or practice my strengths of: leadership, love of learning, curiosity, justice and creativity, which are my top 5 strengths. In any of the other 19 strengths, the effect would be nice but I guess it would only bring me happiness, not necessarily make me thrive.

      • Nicolas Stampf
        Nicolas Stampf says:

        Had a look again at the summary of your book on Amazon.
        My own take on this: the best way to design a system for thrivability (ie its ability to make people part of it thrive) would be to ensure it answers the CSVs they care the most.

        And, since the best way to influence a system is to change yourself (be the change you want to see in the world), AND also to involve others as well, then we need to change our posture from “I know better than others” to “I know my stuff, what about that of others and how could we meet in the center?”

        Which has, IMHO, much to do with Appreciating Systems (see my blog name 😉 and acknowledging each others strengths and build with them. This is what we’ve tried to formalize with my friend Alexis Nicolas at http://www.labso.org, the 4 “fundamental” strengths of people (to differentiate the name from positive psychology CSV strengths):
        – Why people do things (Sinek’s start with why): co-creation of the vision you’d collectively like to achieve
        – How to achieve it best (quickly and easily): co-design of the best common way to achieve it
        – What results we’re looking for: co-praise each others’ achievements along the way which will sustain and reinforce our collective desire to pursue our collective dream using the collective path we’ve decided to follow.

        And the 4 strength which is underlying all of that is each others’ respective, and collective social network, which acts as a catalyst and amplifier of our three basic strengths (vision/method/results or why/how/what).

        • Michelle Holliday
          Michelle Holliday says:

          Thank you, Nicolas! I love your 4 strengths. I use a version of the first 3 when I work with clients. Who are we? What do we want (for our customers, ourselves, our community, the planet)? What has to be true if we are to get what we want? How will we know we’re making progress?

          • Nicolas Stampf
            Nicolas Stampf says:

            That’s very close to our Labso proposal. As is said in the Perl world (a programming language): TMTOWTDI (there’s more than one way to do it 😉
            Have you tried to ask them something along the lines of “who can you turn to to get some help/bounce ideas/get suggestions?” or “who can you partner with to keep momemtum?” or “who do you trust to help you keep accountable on that stuff?”

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