There is an old adage attributed to management guru, Peter Drucker, which states, “What gets measured gets done.” The catch is knowing what to measure so your organization can move forward (get things done).  For those new to sustainability, the concept of what should be measured can be daunting.

What I have found in consultancy work is most clients seek to reference some baseline measures of other industries or competitors. They believe by doing so that they can analyze indicators that others are using and apply them to their own company specific circumstance. This is a good place to start. A discussion of competitive benchmarks may help clarify what measures are relevant and important to your organization.  We have found through multiple engagements in diverse industries, there is a core set of measures that can apply to many projects and programs. We often remind our clients there are additional sustainability measures that should be specific to the project or program. The best indicators are derived through engagements with a diverse set of stakeholders.  These stakeholders are familiar with both the strategic context and the tactical challenges of the project and can help a team help highlight opportunities that they might not otherwise see.   Leveraging these insights from stakeholder teams should establish a starting point and desired end point for each measure.  This dialogue helps the team and its stakeholders come to a shared view of what sustainability success means for the project.

One of the great challenges is finding the balance between qualitative and quantitative measures. One of our clients  has found that using quantitative proxies for qualitative measures helps provides rigor for measurement. For example, when measuring the sustainability of the project schedule, a team might accept a measure of “hours on the laptop” as a proxy measure for “appropriate work/life balance.” Others are adamantly opposed to this approach, believing that quantitative indicators can mask the nuance that can be discovered during discussion of qualitative indicators.  The number of measures and the ability to use proxies is dependent on the maturity level of the group but there are tools and processes that can help facilitate group alignment available.

We recently participated in a rich and complex discussion not only about how to measure sustainability, but also about the purpose of the measurements.  Depending on your industry there can be a myriad of reporting requirements and regulations.  Lots of data is collected but not all of it is used.  Ideally, in addition to mandatory reporting, the data should be used to inform business decisions.  Approaching the question of “What should we measure?” we had to ask why we were measuring it.  What data would satisfy business and external stakeholder needs?  We looked at companies that had successfully navigated the twin drivers of business and stakeholder need.  We looked for good examples of what had been done and achieved by others.  The result was that we recognized the need for industry dialogue about relevant sustainability measures and indicators that can be used to achieve both good operational decisions as well as a more sustainable path for the industry.

What sustainability measures should you have?  That is a complex question but with the right engagement, the right people, and the right tools, the answers can be clear and simple.  The short answer is, decide what you want to achieve and then measure what you want to get done.

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of sustainability articles. The first article can be found here.

Flora Moon, Expressworks’ Sustainable Development Director, will be moderating the conversation on behalf of the Society of Petroleum Engineers meeting to be held in Stavanger, Norway and scheduled for April 2016. Please contact us if you’d like to learn more.)