Gino Borges:     

Thank you all for joining us today on the Journey to Impact: A Virtual Fireside Chat Series. The Journey to Impact series is here to tell a different story of impact. While we will naturally address some of the landmarks of the journey, the series is designed to create space for uncovering the emotional, mental, and spiritual challenges and successes along the path of impact. It’s less concerned about the outcomes or results of actions, but rather the human components of what it feels like to operate in the impact world, illumining one’s inner journey. I’d like to welcome Sasha Dichter, who is the co-founder of 60 decibels, an end-to-end impact measurement company that makes it easy to listen to the people who matter most. Clients include Acumen, the CDC, the UK Department for International Development, and many more. Prior to 60 decibels, Sasha was Chief Innovation Officer of Acumen, a global community, changing the way poverty is tackled. Sasha, let’s go back to that moment where you realized that you wanted to be involved in helping people, not so much from an investing perspective, but where did that become evident for you regardless of what shape or form was to come.

Sasha Dichter:      

We all have winding paths, and they only make sense in retrospect. On some level, I had the great privilege to be born in a comfortable setting in New York City. My parents were both immigrants to this country. My mother is originally from Brazil, and my father arrived here when he was two years old, having been born in the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai. We grew up all hearing stories about our families and our lives. It was easy to hear that story and recognize that a lot of things needed to happen to have my parents find one another in New York, and all the people that made that happen along the way. On my father’s side, there were people who helped his parents in fleeing Poland during WWII. That created a sense of awareness of the world around me and my good fortune. On top of that, more concretely, I grew up in New York City. I would visit my grandparents on my mother’s side in Rio, Brazil pretty regularly when I was a kid. Rio is a city that’s all kind of squished up on itself with a lot of the wealthy sections of town pushed up against the mountains where the slums are. My grandmother had a living room, which I still remember vividly, that had windows looking out into one of those slums. Even at the age of 10 or 12, it felt like a very vivid and real representation of the phase and randomness of all of our lives and a reminder of which side of the glass I happened to have been born on. Anybody I talk to who does impact work has some story that begins with awareness and some sense that the world is an incredibly unfair, very random place. I knew from very early on that my family and I had been the beneficiaries of acts of kindness, generosity, and bravery on the parts of lots of other people. If I could make some meaning from that and from the sacrifices that other people made in my own life, that was the least that I could do. That’s where the seed came from. And, there’s a selfish interest, ironically, in tackling difficult problems in service of other people. Most of the problems that are unsolved in the world are the difficult, interesting ones. It’s a little bit self-serving in that way.

Gino Borges:       

You mention a fair world. What does a fair world look like to you? Do you see your work in impact to bring about a fair world, and if it’s part yes, what does that vision of a fair world look like?

Sasha Dichter:

I can tell you what a fair world doesn’t look like perhaps more easily. Where we’re born and to whom we’re born is probably the most important determinant of what our life can and can’t look like. I firmly believe that human potential is fairly and equally distributed around the world, yet human capacity to realize that potential is extremely, unfairly distributed. We’re wasting the world’s worth of intelligence, opportunity, and understanding. That doesn’t seem good for anybody. On top of that, there’s also a dominance of a narrow set of cultures and cultural beliefs. A pretty narrow view of capitalism has done great things and terrible things all at the same time. But, at the individual level, knock on wood, I could have messed up, but the hand that was dealt to me was a pretty great hand. I literally didn’t do a thing to deserve that. That should matter a lot less than it does.

Gino Borges:        

Amidst some level of guilt, appreciation, and awareness, do you see the impact space as compensation for your winning the ovarian lottery?

Sasha Dichter:   

Emotionally, no. It doesn’t feel that way, honestly. When I feel guilt, it’s around misdeeds that I’ve personally done. I’d like to think that we all have the chance to do something useful in our brief moment here. I’ve been trying to figure out what that useful thing might be for most of my professional life and seem to have hit on a set of things that align with my skills, interests, and views of the world. To answer your question more directly, that feels pretty backwards looking. I feel like the forward-looking view is to get on with it and do the work. My energy is better spent understanding the problems that I’m trying to work out and understanding myself so that I can over time become more capable at doing more. That’s enough to occupy both my emotional energy and actual energy, let alone all the other things we’re trying to do in life and the day-to-day.

Gino Borges:     

When does your work feel like work and when does it feel like flow? Tell us about how, in one case, work feels like it takes so many inputs just to get me going and moving through a particular problem, and then in another context, it’s as if the ethereal world is supporting you.

Sasha Dichter:   

There’s a great short essay by Peter Drucker called “Managing Oneself” which I return to with some regularity. It has to do with how you process information and how you learn, using very different language than you’ve just used. But, I’m at my best when I am working with people to solve problems. When I have great counterparts, but people who will challenge or ask great questions to get into an idea with me and roll up their sleeves with me, it creates a lot of creative energy for me. It’s interesting because I was confused about this for a while being a pretty analytical person. Both of my parents are classical pianists. I grew up as a musician and I always thought of that as a technical skill. I didn’t think of myself as an artist in any real way. Over time, I discovered that I am most joyful when I’m creating things. It can be creating new things, it can be building things, but this act of figuring stuff out and then doing the follow through is when I’m at my best. I am enjoying it the most. More minutely, if I can work with someone to work through an idea and get to a great solution, that time really flies by in a nice way. And then, occasionally when I’m writing, but not usually.

Gino Borges:           

There is an assumption that there’s a lot of problems in the world which seems to turn into motivation for people to solve problems. What are the limitations of automatically viewing the world as problem and solution?

Sasha Dichter: 

I struggle to get past it. It feels like an obvious series of observations, but we have enough capacity to produce enough food to feed everybody, but people go unfed. We have the most knowledge about medical wellbeing and health than we ever had, and yet we’ve found ways to decline lifespans. We have this incredibly productive planet, but we’re going through a mass extinction in which 200 species are going extinct every day. We have 17 years or so before climate change reaches a certain irreversible level. My view is we’ve found a way to create a great deal of productive abundance which is different than other kinds of abundance.

A lot of things that are universally-valued about decreasing suffering and increasing lifespans are all improving. There’s a ton of good news. A lot of people have benefited from that, but half of the world’s population doesn’t. As importantly, I’m not sure that we even have a narrative as a society (American society) around opportunity. There’s not a narrative around everybody flourishing. Ours is really the first generation which you can imagine “freedom from” — a long list of things that you would imagine a lot of people would agree we want to be free from. That potential feels unrealized but also feels within our reach. So, our leverage right now is greater than it’s ever been.

Gino Borges:        

You mentioned climate, you mentioned medicine, you mentioned lifespan from the lens of their abundance and shortcomings of those in terms of access to some people, but not to everybody. Could it be that the outer world symptoms are the results of something that’s taking place within our hearts as a collective? Are the outer world issues a byproduct of something else?

Sasha Dichter:       

I find myself having two different responses. One response is, historically for all of mankind, we’ve been materially poor. Until about the Industrial Revolution, the state of everyone was to be poor and have relatively short and violent lives. One view says this is nothing in our collective hearts. It’s the normal state, the world to be that way. Somehow we managed to industrialize and change that for better, or for worse. It’s probably both. Another view, despite all of that, is that we have built a system that is always based on some divisions and separation. I think that’s in human nature. We’re a very tribal species, and we understand the world naturally. We are wired to understand the world as us and them. That’s how we’ve survived, by forming groups. From the oldest records of commerce and trade, there were differences in how you treated both money and people within your ingroup as opposed to people in your outgroup. The idea that you would, for example, charge interest was only allowable if you charge interest to people who are not of your group. Those distinctions go back to the beginning. That need to make sense of the world by creating division and separation runs pretty deep in us. This isn’t new, but our capacity to take all of these ideas and make them much more robust has certainly accelerated. There’s nothing new, but I think that we’re manifesting a lot of our natural tendencies without awareness. There’s an appealing story that all the systems that we’ve created are morally agnostic. There’s opportunity. If you rise to the top, it’s because you worked hard and all these self-serving stories. Those types of narratives are seemingly new and serve a particular function. But, the idea of separation and grouping, they go back to our need to survive way back when.

Gino Borges:       

There may be a primal tendency to tribal allies to separate us versus them. But then there’s also another part of us that understands that there’s a certain limitation on how far we can extend our life force into the world without collaboration, without going beyond. A large part of our seemingly material achievement has been the byproduct of going beyond our tribes and extending beyond our physical, immediate tribal sphere. Where is there room to understand that awareness alone has helped us soften that primal tendency and that it may not be necessarily in our best interests? There may be a larger collaborative interest that we have, beyond the single competitive motivation that you previously share.

Sasha Dichter:

The impetus to cooperate and to compete coexist very well and very naturally, whether it’s extending the notion of family beyond people who are literally your family and then to your tribe, and then beyond that. I don’t mean to imply that we’re just naturally a tribal, non-enlightened people writ large. My response comes from the question “are the challenges that we’re experiencing right now manifestations of something new?” To me, they may not be. Do we have a natural tendency to overcome that? Is that evolving and growing in any positive way? I don’t know the answer to that question. It feels like “yes” and “no” depending on what part of the elephant you look at. I definitely see a lot of positive things to look at such as people living their entire lives in service of others, income activity, and with raising self-awareness. When you start to talk about the state of the world and where it’s going, one has no choice but to think of the large systems, ideas, and structures because those went out almost every time against an individual enlightened person is trying to overcome what they’ve put in place.

Gino Borges:

Let’s take what you laid out in the first 15 minutes about our way of being, or way of eventually knowing our place in the world, and then overlay it with impact investing. Where are notions of competition and cooperation leveraged to addressed these outer problems, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s racial issues and so forth?

Sasha Dichter:  

You’ve been exploring a lot of non-dualistic ways of approaching problems as we’ve been talking. The thesis of impact investing is exactly that. The challenge has been a few things. Most fundamentally, I’m not sure that most of the practitioners who signed up to be part of this read the label on the package. Most of the people who are really motivated by that level of enlightened, nondual creation of enterprises, investing in value, by and large, are not the people who have the most technical skills to do the kinds of things that investors typically do. As a sector, we mostly don’t enjoy grappling with the fundamental underlying questions because at its most basic, investing could be a questioning of whether that’s the best way to measure an investor as a single optimization, a financial return. Impact investing is saying that’s not the answer. Maybe there are other things you can be optimizing for and most obviously not just financial value, but social value. It’s hard to do that. It’s hard to know if you’re succeeding. At its most basic, it’s trying to make it much, much easier to understand what it means to create impact because we feel like we need to give you the tools, you who are deploying the impact capital, the tools to understand what it means to succeed on two axes rather than one axis.

That’s the more practical side of the equation. On the personal level, it’s hard enough to execute the job if you will. To do that as a process of self-enlightenment is an individual pursuit. I don’t think as a sector we want to do that because I think as a sector we are embedded within a much larger sector of investments that doesn’t speak the same language. There’s a lot of really practical considerations that are happening in impact investing to try to grow and try to be relevant to people who are not individually looking for enlightenment and financial returns. People who just say, look, I care about the planet, I care about the world, I care about people. Maybe my investment portfolio could align with that a little bit more. There’s a long road to walk. But, ironically we are deeply, deeply embedded into the core institution. We are deeply trying to persuade and influence the core institutions of capitalism. As a sector, we’ve been trying to figure out what the best way is to affect change. That’s what we’re tied at the hip with.

Gino Borges:   

It seems like the impact space has its “mechanics of impact” who want to appropriate the tools of the larger financial system and superimpose them on the impact space. A part of me is very weary of that type of imposition on the space primarily because the quality of those tools is going to be the quality that’s superimposed on your particular space. What are the limitations of reducing impact down to categories and metrics? How do you maintain relevancy without succumbing to the financial machinery at large?

Sasha Dichter:

A couple of years ago, Clara Miller, when she was the president of the Heron Foundation, wrote a great essay that was essentially about this. She talked about impact investing not wanting to be a terrarium. That’s a good point. We can be small and perfect, and then we can assume that someday we’ll influence the larger whole. But, the large whole isn’t easy to influence. One of our bigger risks is that we can be a little bit precious. You have to decide which risks you’d like better: am I worried about being appropriated by the larger system or am worried about being irrelevant? Frankly, I’d worry more about being irrelevant. Expectations are changing, whether that’s a generational change or just recognition of some of the limitations of capitalism, some of the cracks in capitalism, or some of the structural inequality that getting accelerated. But, there was a movement in a direction. Recognizing there is a movement in a particular direction, then we also have a window of time in which to seize an opportunity. You asked this other question, “do you feel like there’s this appropriation going on or the risk of appropriation?” There’s absolutely all of those risks. But, we don’t minimize those risks by kind of putting our heads in the sand and saying, we want to play a small. So when multiple mainstream, multibillion dollar impact funds come into the world, we can either howl at the moon and say they’re not perfect enough. Or, we can say, “it’s the greatest thing in the world. Thank God you’ve arrived.” Or, we can do neither of those things, God-willing, and actually try to be useful and helpful to share what we’ve learned and influence where we can to provide tools to hold people accountable. So, and, and again, going back a little bit more to the, to the practical.

Starting a social impact company is not the sexiest and easiest thing to do because the experience right now of social impact measurement is kind of heavy, attacking even people who really want to do good work. “I really want to do good work. Oh, here comes the impact measurement. Ugh! I guess grin and bear it.” It’s pretty insane. Let me understand this correctly. You’ve devoted your life to this service and whatever that means to you. And, we’re here to help you understand if you’re actually doing it, which is not perfect, but we’ll help you get a lot more information than you had before.

The idea that that information wouldn’t be anything like a glass of water if you’re in the desert, it doesn’t really make sense when you describe it that way. That’s the reality. The reason is because right now, if you are deploying impact capital, and I don’t care if you’re an impact investor, a major foundation, or an individual with a family office, if I go to you and say, “how are you understanding whether or not you’re creating that impact?” You could look me in the eye and say it’s really hard and it’s kind of distracting. It takes away from me actually creating that impact, so I’m not really putting the resources into it. I would have to sort of nod and say, that’s a reasonable response to have today. So, if even the most well-intentioned people, let alone the ones who aren’t, can reasonably say, at some basic level, my impact performance is too hard, then we have a major systemic problem.

It’s not necessarily the case that if we solve that problem, we’d solve all the problems. But, what we’re trying to do is to say, if you are anywhere in the world doing essentially anything in the world, if you are working with people, we can make it really easy for you to understand where, how, and how much impact you’re creating for them. We want to make it impossible for people to say, “Ah! I’d really like to, but it’s such a pain.” If we can make that impossible, then we can start changing a default behavior. When I think about change and how change happens, one of our most powerful leavers is a change of defaults. A default 50 years ago was like, if I’m an investor, I’m trying to make money. There’s a default that’s slowly shifted. That’s not the only thing. In the context of people who are trying to create impact, I think the honest default behavior has been either I won’t really do any measurement of impact or if I do like we’ll all just collectively understand that 9 out 10 times it’ll be off to the side. What we’re trying to say is we learned how to do financial performance, operational performance, and in cycles of improvements. Everything you think about when you think of running a high functioning, large scale organization are tools that we created to drive towards excellence. We’re creating tools that would drive us towards excellence of the creation of social impact. The only way you do that is with speed, with feedback loops, with the need to be responsive, all these sorts of things.

Those characteristics that you would apply to all the other skills that we’ve developed as a world, if you could develop that skill in impact, you create a shift of default. You create an improvement cycle. We would be in a different spot. All the people who are in impact because they really care about impact would have greater tools, and they’d get better. All the people who said I’m not gonna bother, you can then have a conversation around accountability. You’re not wanting to do it now transmits to me something about your actual underlying intent rather than just our poor capacity as a sector to deliver basic tools to do the work that we say is important.

Gino Borges:  

That’s really well said. I love your notion of default behaviors and understanding how that either supports the space or actually hinders the space. Help us understand the origin and the motivation and how it all sort of transpired to move from your previous endeavor at Acumen to 60 decibels.

Sasha Dichter: 

It’s really a continuous line. From day one at Acumen, why don’t you do a few things, why don’t you deploy, for-profit capital to create social change for low-income customers, which at the time seemed crazy. That was very commonplace place for Acumen. But the other thing that they wanted to do was to really shift philanthropy and create a culture of transparency and accountability with respect to philanthropic capital. If you’re a philanthropic donor in San Francisco and we deploy your capital somewhere in India, you really need to have full understanding of where it’s going, what it’s doing, and is it creating social impact. I wanted that commitment to be woven into the DNA of the organization. Acumen was involved in trying to build systems and approaches to make it possible to do that. So, we did it for ourselves. We helped work with a bunch of the organizations in the sector to create some of the impact measurement standards and we were constantly creating tools, software, and other sorts of things. So that heritage and intent was there. Those two things obviously are the soil in which we grow new things. In 2012, I became responsible for the impact function at Acumen as well as a few other things. We did an auditing of what our practice of impact measurement had been as a hundred plus million dollar impact investing fund. Fundamentally we came to the conclusion that we’re putting out a lot of resources to try, and we were taking it really seriously. We were deploying capital the way we wanted to deploy it, but our impact measurement system wasn’t making us better at deploying capital. It wasn’t a learning system. It just wasn’t doing any of those things despite our honest thinking that we were trying as hard or harder than anyone. So, we built what then became our Lean Data impact measurement approach to solve our own challenges within Acumen, which first and foremost was to understand if we were an organization that exists to serve low-income customers. We wanted to understand if we really work, and then over time to better quantify impact. Constraints are very helpful because they force us to innovate through and around them. One of the most important constraints we needed was a system that worked for a for-profit social entrepreneur who is struggling to grow and struggling to make ends meet. If you’re in that setup, it can’t be really expensive and it can’t be slow. From day one, we called the team the Lean Data team; we didn’t call ourselves the social impact measurement team. Instead of going to a CEO and saying, “Hi, we are the impact measurers and we’re here to help,” a great way to get shown the door, we would go to a CEO and say, “Hi, do you feel like you understand your customers as well as you would like to understand them? And if not, can we help you with that?” Every CEO will say I don’t understand that as well as I’d like and I’d really like to understand them better. That grounding really helped us. That’s been our North star from the beginning. A lot of what we’ve done is a lot of innovation in the “how.” So much of our sector is just loves to talk about the “what” of measurement and it feels a lot less sexy to talk about the “how.” We are here every single day to solve the “how” problem and our “how” problem has been how do we make it quick and easy, and how do we make it high quality, painless, less burdensome, and useful. All those are words that we love. Our most obvious innovation is finding a way to get really, really great data over mobile phones rather than driving up to someone’s house, which is really expensive and you should do in some cases, but not in all. The other really important “how,” which is less obvious is that we really are focused on asking great questions. A great question is going to empower the person to whom you’re speaking to describe their lived experience in an accurate way. A terrible question will fail to do that. So, we spent a lot of time writing really great questions. The other thing that we’ve done, which we didn’t know we would do from the outset, is we actually have built our whole business based on conversations, voice-to-voice. We say mobile phones, and people sometimes imagine we’re just sending a lot of SMS messages.

We actually have a virtual network of 190 researchers in 34 countries who call people on the phone and ask them a combination of quantitative or qualitative questions to really get very, very rich data about their lives. All of this is an infrastructure we built to solve this very simple question, which is, how can I help you understand your customers better? If you’re a person who cares about impact, then that understanding that you’re seeking will necessarily encompass that impact. Our bar is always to help entrepreneurs serve customers better by sharing actionable things that they can do tomorrow that relates to how they serve those customers, how they create impact. Then, we reset the conversation again.

The premise of impact measurement is at best to create a report that will go to our funders and make us look good. The idea that this is an operational tool feels very novel, which is just again, completely at odds with the idea that you’ve got entrepreneurs trying to solve problems and devoting their lives to it. The idea that understanding whether or not they’re fulfilling their mission would be like something on the side. Again, it makes no sense. But, until then, we hadn’t solved that “how” question a way that was useful to those people on the front lines.

Gino Borges:  

What is your role at 60 decibels?

Sasha Dichter:  

I’m one of two co-founders with Tom Adams. Tom and I worked together from day one. He joined Acumen to lead the impact function and built the Lean Data team. We run the company and do lots of non-glamorous things, like a startup. I would, by the way, discourage any of your listeners to simultaneously do a spin out, do a capital raise, try to serve existing clients and start operations in four countries at the same time. That’s what we did in the first half of this year. It was one too many or maybe two too many things at the same time, but we’re still standing.

Gino Borges:  

How do you manage feeling overwhelmed? Do you have a practice that helps you manage?

Sasha Dichter:

That’s just all of our life’s work. I have three kids. My wife works, I work, and I write a blog. I started a company for the first time in my 40s. What helps me the most is recognizing that, at the end of every day, there’s always more to be done. There’s no amount of work that I could do that I’d be finished because my work is hopefully much bigger than the to do list, the inbox, Slack messages, and everything else. When I’m not traveling, I try to have a pretty structured, predictable day in terms of time and in terms of hours. I think that helps me and the people around me understand how time will work. I try to sleep enough. It’s really important to me. Lots of people who run things somehow seem not to need to rest. I’m not one of those people at all. For each of us, we need to find our things that get us grounded again. I’m pretty active; I play squash. Probably five days a week I’m doing some sort of physical activity and that helps me sleep at night and gets my mind off other stuff. But, everyone needs to find their own thing. When I’m not where I’d want to be, I do really try to have off times. “Off” could literally be as practical as we leave our cell phones on a different floor, it doesn’t come into our bedrooms, which is a credit to my wife. I was like, “no, it’s off. It’s fine. It’s just there on the nightstand.” She was completely right in saying just mentally it’s not the same experience. Similarly on the weekends, just trying to be present with my family or with whatever other activities. When I travel, mostly when I’m on the road, I’m much less disciplined about all of these things. I feel like while I’m away, I may as well be working if I’m awake. I do get a lot done, but at a certain point, I just start to become reactive, buzzing, and always on. I literally can’t sit still, checking my phone all the time. I don’t even know what I’m looking for. It’s very easy for me to get in that very manic place. And, that’s not me at my best. I’m not at my best in my 15th hour. I work hard. My typical day is a 12-hour workday. That’s plenty, and beyond that I can’t sustain, I can’t be at my best for the people around me, let alone for my own wellbeing.

Gino Borges:

That’s well said. Thank you for sharing that. When you talked about measurement, you mentioned speed, velocity, and quickness. How did you come to the point of realization that those are important variables to provide for people that were hiring you?

Sasha Dichter:

It depends on people. I was talking to two different people today. One of them, who came from the private sector, asked us how frequently do you think you guys should be gathering this data? And I said, we don’t set a minimum annual lead, but we recommend quarterly. This guy’s initial reaction was just like, is that all? We’re coming from a world in which a typical evaluation would take three years. I’m saying speed relative to our common practices. What we’re doing could be a whole other order of magnitude of speed. What I know is if it takes me three years to study something, the purpose of that is maybe for the general pool of knowledge in the form of some publication. But the purpose of that is certainly not in service of the people who are doing that work to help them understand and improve it unless they themselves are operating on 50-year time horizons, which they might be, but in most cases it’s not. It’s been a simple answer to the question of “what would there need to be to feel that the data is useful to me in my daily course of business and not in my three year strategy review?” For us we’re doing a project end-to-end in six to eight weeks. I could still imagine a world you could do that in two to three. I do think it’s all relative.

There is a huge space to fundamentally understanding interventions. The problem we’re trying to solve is not that problem. The problem we are trying to solve is, for example, you understand that a safe place to give birth really matters for maternal outcomes and child outcomes. So we’ve set up whatever we need to set up, and ask how’s it going in reality. My co-founder, Tom, likes to joke that if you were to ask someone who was an investor a chain of pharmacies in, say, Kenya, how the investment is doing, the response is that we’ve seen a gross profit margin of about 35%.

That’s fine, but your chain, how is it actually doing? Again, typically this is what we see. That is literally the conversation one has around impact. How’s your maternal care? In general, we see that these are the results and we’ve served 500 women. So, we think those are the results, right? That can’t be the answer. The answer we want is how is it going for those 500 women. What’s going well and what’s going poorly? When you get data back that says this is very well, this is going poorly, we can act on it. None of that is going to happen on multi-year cycles. That’s why we’re grounded where we are.

Gino Borges:

The philosophy of science teaches us that we can de-risk our conclusions by making sure that it’s wide enough scope, making sure covering enough people over enough time, over enough space. After eight weeks, have you ever had a moment where all of a sudden your team’s working really hard, you did everything right from a method perspective, but when you step back, at a gut level, and looked at the outcomes that were essentially embodied in whatever methods you’re employing just didn’t feel right? What do you do at that point? Somebody just hired you, they put you on retainer, they wrote a check, a lot of people did a lot of work, and yet you look at something and it just doesn’t feel like the essence to you where you’re not capturing the phenomenological life force that you’re really trying to capture.

Sasha Dichter: 

Yes, that can happen. When that happens it’s when we’re maybe not optimizing for the right things. I mentioned constraints as an important thing that help us come up with a bunch of new innovations, but we also have a lot of constraints that are described in terms of the promises we make to the people who hire us and the promises we make to their customers. If I’m speaking to you on the phone for 12 minutes, it might be our average survey lane. There really are limitations to what I can uncover. On top of that, maybe the researcher who is speaking to you does speak your language, but the typical client may not have a high degree of education. Some of the questions we’re asking, we formed. They’re typically on 1 to 10 scale or very much agree to very much disagree.

I think all of those limitations can creep in. I hope we’ll never completely miss because we have enough baked in, fully open-ended questions where as long as we have a researcher who has set up a degree of comfort with the people that they’re speaking to, there is space for them to say this is what’s really going on. That helps. That’s why we really like voice and we always have 100% of the time completely open-ended questions so that we’re not always boxing people into how we think the answer should be structured. We approach it with humility. My only caveat, one of the things we are trying to overcome, is that I do think we know what impact looks like without the data.

When someone comes back and says, this is my experience; it is a tough moment. Maybe that really disagrees with what I expected. We need to start off assuming that what the people told us is what’s real. In an ideal world, we would explore the data more deeply. We would try to dig into that qualitative piece. We always share the raw data in its unsynthesized format with clients so they can dig in as well. Hopefully, there’s always something good and always something to be learned. We are trying very hard to allow it to be imperfect because we think that’s our own cycle improvement as well. As long as we’re approaching those moments honestly and sharing what we’re learning and being clear what it is and what it isn’t, hopefully, that’s as genuine as we can be in that moment.

Gino Borges: 

How do we make sense of the impact of measurement when humans and our environment are changing from moment to moment?

Sasha Dichter: 

The analogy is you have reality, the movie. What we’re able to capture are hopefully really nice snapshots. And then, you have darkness. The snapshots are not the movie, but I would rather have the snapshots than the darkness. I can understand and be conscious of and humble about the fact that the snapshot are not the movie itself. It’s not everything. If you’ve ever done one of these blind mazes or anything like that, the darkness is hard to relish. That awareness is in everything we’re doing. If you go to our website, you will see customer voices on the homepage — actual things that actual people are saying to us. If there’s a chart that we’re presenting to you, we’re putting people’s words right next to it. We are trying to always remind ourselves that there’s a human behind every data point and try to make those voices literally appear, partially for the practical thing that they represent, but partially just to say, hey! there’s a person here. It’s not just a bunch of bar charts. That’s hopefully how we do a little bit of that. But, I don’t want to overstate and say we don’t fall into that trap. We do have an enormous bias towards action and getting people to do. I’ll stand by the feeling that for most our clients, if we can help them make more informed action with the slight risk that we’re overstating reality or we sometimes get it wrong, I feel like 10 out of 10 times slightly more informed action is more likely to help them create the impact that we’re trying to create in the world and serve those customers than the uninformed action.

If we get really, really good at that, then I think we’re going to get smarter and ask what are the unintended consequences? What are the biases? What are the things that we’re overstating? That’s what mastery and expertise begins to look like. You do the thing better than you did before, but poorly, and then move on from there until you master that and master that and master that. I really do think for the kind of work that we’re doing, we’re one of the first organizations that’s trying to tackle this piece of the problem. We’re a few years in, in our early days. When we looked back three or six months ago, there were moments of “it could’ve been a lot better.” The intention is always to get as close to that reality as possible. We’re coming up against two establishments and one of them being it would be easier not to actually bother doing the work. But there’s another establishment, the expert establishment, which is saying none of this is rigorous enough, good enough because it’s done differently than how we’ve traditionally done it. That approach is really effectively serving like a tiny, tiny portion of the need and the rest of that need will never be met with those approaches. Rather than advocate for our status quo, we can say our status quo can grow, it can be more ample, can incorporate more tools, and really meet the needs of a much larger portion of the folks who are trying to create positive change in the world.

Gino Borges:  

I remember preparing for this interview and thinking I really wanted to bring Sasha to the edge of the methods and the edge of the processes. I was really curious how he navigates in the dark or with some light, understanding the limitations and understanding the benefits. I feel like you’re wrangling with this every day, not just technically, but I can see that you’re also processing it.

Sasha Dichter: 

A lot of wrangling. But, not many people ask me such, such tough questions, so I mostly keep it to myself.

Gino Borges: 

That’s part of the intent of why we’re doing this series — to really get at that inner dynamic of when we’re trying to do work, but it’s also paradoxical and confusing. We have to make decisions in the midst of fog most of the time. Rarely is anything so clear, and yet we have to move in some direction. I want to thank you all for joining us to listen to Sasha as part of the Journey to Impact. Sasha, the co-founder of 60 decibels is one of the most articulate voices in the world of impact measurements. Thank you, Sasha, for joining us. It was a very rewarding conversation for sure.