Cultural Groups: Beware the Metric System!

Could a competency model change the board-building process?

Last week at a committee meeting (I sit on the board and nominating committee of an arts organization), we were asked what metric we should use to measure our progress on equity, inclusion and diversity. The organization, in an extraordinarily diverse sector of the arts, strives to serve the entire complexity of its field. So, for us, conversations about what exactly it means to be diverse are longstanding and regular. In trying to ensure that our board represents the field and our membership, we consider geographic, budget, racial, ethnic, genre, business model and role diversity, among others. With a limited number of board seats to replace each year, assembling a proper slate can be likened to a jigsaw puzzle, where pieces can form many pictures instead of just one.

While we have long considered diversity in assembling our board, our conversations have taken on added dimensions in the past couple of years. Before that, like many other arts organizations, we did not reflect the diversity of our industry or of our changing society, and that spurred us to take a more expansive view of this issue. Joining what has become a broader societal conversation, our goal was to increase representation of diverse cultures, practices and points of view from across our cultural landscape. We also wanted to take a more active leadership role in our industry. So we undertook an intentional program that continues today — because we acknowledge that issues around diversity, and efforts to address them, must be ongoing and thoughtful. In other words, you cannot address these issues just once.

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Having committed to equity, inclusion, and diversity on our board and in our operations, it is therefore only natural that we should want to measure our progress. But sitting in the committee meeting, pondering the request for metrics, I found myself considering a number of questions:

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  • What exactly did we hope to achieve? If our goal was simply to increase inclusion and diversity, hadn’t we arguably succeeded?
  • While developing our slate of potential trustees to nominate, how could we provide guidance to the committee as it struggles to prioritize diversity of industry characteristics with ongoing imbalances in race, gender and ethnicity?
  • Can we really reach consensus on what successful models of diversity and inclusion look like?

Metrics qua metrics are tricky: by trying to capture a complex phenomenon in a simple number, they tend toward the reductive and are more subjective than we think. The Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek has cogently critiqued the idea that economic measures like inflation and unemployment are objective. He proposes that such metrics are, in actuality, normative — related to good and evil because we apply value judgments to a measured number. If you meet or surpass the desired metric, you succeed; if you don’t meet or surpass the desire metric, you fail. Moreover, relying solely on supposedly objective metrics too often incentivizes behavior in unintended ways that do not advance the underlying imperative. We can see this, for example, in a federal education policy that results in teaching to the test, or relying on a single IQ number to judge people’s intellectual capacity. In cases like these, metrics were established to measure how well an underlying goal was achieved, but, standing alone, each metric effectively undermines that goal.

As Nate Silver....beware those metrics!
As Nate Silver might say: beware those metrics!

To paraphrase Nate Silver in his consideration of data, metrics need a direct connection to specific strategic goals or they will be less effective and we may miss an understanding of the impact our actions have. Metrics to measure success at building diverse communities may quantify how a “picture” is changing, but, in and of themselves, metrics do not effectively measure an organization’s success because they do not get directly to the heart of the matter.

As I noted earlier, equity, inclusion and diversity must be ongoing, constantly evolving conversations. What underlines those conversations are questions of community — from who participates in the group to the way it collectively treats its members. While successful efforts in these areas do result in vibrant communities, the snapshot of a simple metric, at best, can only indicate the state of a group at a given moment in time. While a snapshot can be informative, certainly — and when compared to past and future snapshots it can document change — it exists outside the context of a continuum that has a starting point and a goal. Standing alone, a metric is only a data point floating at sea.

For this reason, I suggested in the committee meeting, and suggest here, that any metric aiming to measure the success of a group’s efforts toward equity, inclusion, and diversity must begin with a clear articulation of the intentions and goals of that group. As with any strategic imperative, a clear concise and comprehensible statement of the organization’s goals and intentions should provide sufficient guidance for an institution if it persistently measures and evaluates this statement through self-examination and adjustment—which metrics can aid. Unless considered in this way, metrics are potentially harmful, becoming fixed goals resulting in judgments rather than signposts along a journey towards organizational fulfillment.

In my strategic planning classes, I teach that a strategic plan is a live and evolving set of intentions and goals that must be evaluated regularly and adjusted as necessary. Such ongoing self-analysis leads to successful organizational health, and metrics play a role in that dialogue. But it is still the dialogue that matters, not the metrics, especially for a strategic imperative like equity, inclusion, and diversity, which is rooted in communal relationships and dynamics.

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Ken Tabachnick
Ken Tabachnick is an arts manager, educator, reformed intellectual property attorney and intermittently practicing artist. In his different roles, he has worked with: major institutions, such as New York City Ballet, Paris Opera, the Kirov and Bolshoi companies; individual artists, including Stephen Petronio, Bebe Miller, Robert Wilson and Trisha Brown; and educational institutions Purchase College and NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. His current interests occupy the intersection between art, policy, business and organizational structure, and TaeKwonDo. He is active on non-profit boards including Dance/USA, Stephen Petronio Company and Westbeth Artists' Housing. Select writings and speeches can be found at his blog, Periodic Arts.