HDI Community Blog

Phil Verghis
Einstein and the Pursuit of Gross National Happiness
Written by Philip Verghis Jan 06, 2012

As leading-edge companies start making the shift from activity-based to outcome-based metrics, they realize that this difficult journey involves coming up with new measures which are fuzzier. It also requires new lenses through which to view the world.

Let's take a look at three examples—spanning environments as diverse as quantum mechanics, an ancient Egyptian cartographer, and a modern-day monarchy in the Himalayas—to see if we can glean any insights into how to morph service and support measurements.

Example One: Time to Revisit Einstein?

In the late nineteenth century, physicists felt that they understood and had cracked most of natures' mysteries and the only thing future physicists would add were more precise measurements. Little did they realize that within the next thirty years, an abundance of compelling conceptual breakthroughs would happen including the discovery of atoms, quantum mechanics, and Einstein's theory of relativity. To say that physics was turned upside-down would be an understatement.

Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity states that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. More precisely, as you approach the speed of light, time gets slower to the point of stopping. Over a hundred years of experiments have confirmed this fact. Go faster than the speed of light, and you will go backwards in time.

Until September 23, 2011.

On this day scientists at Europe's premier particle-physics laboratory—CERN—in Geneva reported that they had measured exotic subatomic particles called neutrinos that moved faster than the speed of light. Sure, it was only faster by 60 nanoseconds, but that tiny difference is profound.

It means that Einstein was wrong, and time travel is indeed possible. Actually, the currently favored explanation is that there are more dimensions than the familiar ones of length, width, height, and time. The theory is that the neutrinos took a shortcut through some of the hidden dimensions that string theory says exist.

Hidden dimensions? Parallel universes? Does your head hurt yet? Don't worry. One of the giants of quantum mechanics, Nobel Prize winner Neils Bohr, said "Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it."

If physics has indeed been turned on its head again, stay tuned for a number of exciting new conceptual breakthroughs in the years ahead.

Lesson for support: In some ways, we in the support world view measures the same way the physicists of the late nineteenth century did. We know them well: the activity-based measures that we have always used to run our business. But leading-edge executives are scratching the surface of an entirely new way of measuring: outcome-based measures. These are fuzzy, hard to define, full of probabilities, and have no easy cause-and-effect answers.

For example, as the associate working with a customer, how much did I influence the outcome of that customer's net promoter score? What can I specifically do to improve it?

As support seeks to become more relevant and central to the business of the business, we must raise the caliber of our measures to match. For one thing, they will have to become more about how knowledge contributes to the intellectual capital of the organization versus getting stuck measuring how much money was saved by having customers use self-service on the Internet first.

Example Two: Mom, What's the Circumference of the Earth?

Let's do a thought experiment. Imagine you are disconnected from the internet, and you must figure out the circumference of the earth, using only using books from the library and two measuring sticks. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Seems impossible, doesn't it? It wasn't to the Egyptian polymath Eratosthenes (ca. 276-194 BC) He read about a well in Syene, in southern Egypt (now Aswan), where the bottom of the well was completely flooded by sunlight only on the longest day of the year. This meant the sun must be directly overhead at that point in time.

He also observed that at the same time, vertical objects in Alexandria cast a shadow, which he was able to measure as 7 degrees, which is about 1/50th of 360 degrees. This meant the circle (earth) itself was 50 times the distance from Syene to Alexandria. He hired a man to painstakingly pace the distance between the two cities (800 KM) and he calculated the circumference of the earth as 800 X 50, or 40,000 KM. Astonishingly, his result—from 2,200 years ago—was within 3% of the actual answer.

No one told Columbus that (or he didn't consult a knowledge base). Over 1,700 years later his calculations were off, which is why he arrived in the West Indies instead of India.

Lesson for support: As we start measuring and managing in the new outcome-based world, we will often have to make educated guesses and try new approaches to approximate what we are trying to measure. Don't get flustered. At the beginning, just be sure your measures are directionally correct and are better than what already exists. Then keep improving them.

Example Three: How Happy are You?

One of the biggest issues that early adopters with outcome-based metrics face is choosing which leading indicators and lagging indicators to use to run the business. For something completely different, let's see how a country is trying to address this.

The Kingdom of Bhutan in South Asia is a tiny, landlocked country bordered to the north by Tibet, and to the east, south and west by India. Bhutan uses a measure called gross national happiness (GNH), and the king has stated that it is more important to them than gross national product (GNP).

GNH is based on the belief that happiness is the ultimate desire of every individual. By extension, the state's responsibility and purpose is to create the necessary conditions that enable citizens to lead the good life. GNH supports the notion that happiness pursued and realized, within the context of the greater good of society, offers the best possibility for the sustained happiness of the individual. To this end, GNH stresses collective happiness, and in the country's development projects and programs happiness becomes an explicit criterion.

They have chosen nine provisional measures to survey GNH:

  1. Standard of living
  2. Health of the population
  3. Education
  4. Ecosystem vitality and diversity
  5. Cultural vitality and diversity
  6. Time use and balance
  7. Good governance
  8. Community vitality
  9. Emotional well-being

Lesson for support: Look outside to see how other fields are trying to assess outcome-based measures.

"Measures, Metrics, and Madness," by Phil Verghis (white paper)
How to Measure Anything, by Douglas W. Hubbard
Transforming Performance Measurement, by Dr. Dean Spitzer
"Neutrino surprise emerges from MINOS," PhysicsWorld.com
Net Promoter
The Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United Nations in New York

This was originally published in Phil's newsletter, and is reprinted here with permission.

Leave a Comment
We value your feedback. To leave a comment, please log in or create an account.