What makes and counts as “impact”?

 All of us aspire to make a difference in something, whether it is in our profession, with our family, with friends, or at a broader scale.

But how do we know that we are actually getting there, and our work is having an impact and changing the way things are done or the way people think about an issue? The focus is obviously on positive change here as impact can go both ways from positive to negative.

Demonstrating impact

In academia, it used to be relatively simple how we measured “impact”: we count how many times a scientific article has been cited. The more citations, the more popular the paper, the more “impact” your ideas and research is supposedly having.

Yet, nowadays we are starting to recognise that creating an impact is not all just about citations. In fact, there are so many competing ideas and articles that we need to do more to show we are actually generating an impact.

Now academics aim to write guest blogs or their own blogs, use Twitter and Linked In to share news about their research, appear on short videos, do podcasting, give interviews to newspapers and university media about their work.

We are also engaging more and more in scientific assessments, such as those of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and participate on advisory boards in our area of expertise.

These activities can help in providing more avenues in getting our message across. But is academia even the best place to produce lasting change, one that is capable of changing people’s lives?

 

Getting from ideas to impact

Much of what I have observed in the last two years about ideas and impact comes down to branding and developing a public profile. Take someone like Adam Grant or Simon Sinek: both are highly successful authors of popular books who do research and then write about what they have found.

Both, I would argue, are having and have had a significant impact on people’s thinking on leadership and management through popular science. So why do some people become big names and others do not who might have similar ideas to share?

Both Adam Grant and Simon Sinek have strong individual brands. We know what they do, what they stand for, and there are multiple channels on how we can access the knowledge that they create: websites, Linked In posts, podcast interviews, podcast series like WorkLife with Adam Grant, books, interviews, articles, you name it.

The point is that both of these authors are working hard on keeping themselves relevant, reaching a bigger audience, and having something valuable to say that is resonating with people.

It does not have to be complicated at all. Most ideas that spread fast are actually simple yet profound.

Both Adam and Simon have that quality that speaks to many of us: providing simple yet powerful messages about what good leadership and management looks like, the kinds of steps that others have taken to get there, and how we as well can aspire to become better leaders and managers.

There is in fact nowadays a whole industry out there to help people to get their message across and heard: there are professional gurus who provide advice on how to build your brand, how to improve your website and communication channels, how to do public speaking, how to score speaking gigs.

All of that advice is useful to some extent but what I would really want to know is that how we do we know that our ideas are changing someone’s life in practice?

Do we count the number of Twitter and LinkedIn followers, how many times our blog has been viewed, the times our work has been cited? How do we know that our words and thoughts have changed or influenced someone to do something differently?

 

Not all ideas are (or need be) life changing

So why do we even need to consider whether we are having a life changing impact? Most academics would probably argue that they are mainly focused on progressing the scientific field and are not in a habit of changing people’s lives as such.

Impact for me counts as being able to contribute to the development of ideas in my field, questioning the core assumptions that we have made about how to adapt to climate change and what that even means.

Whenever I have encountered a colleague or a student who has read my papers and have found those ideas helpful, I count my blessings and count that as an impact.

Granted, it’s probably not life changing but idea changing at least: being able to influence how someone thinks about the field and hopefully spurring in them a growing inspiration to keep developing their own ideas.

Understanding your personal impact factor

For me, it is useful to think impact in terms of what resonates with other people. But more importantly, if you want to measure your impact and understand how your work is changing something, developing a personal impact factor can help.

Given most of our skills, professional fields, and avenues to make impact can be vastly different, it is worth considering different ways in how we could or should measure our impact.

There are both formal and informal methods in doing this. To get to the bottom of online impact, we can do a search on the number of times people have referred to our idea or work; for authors, the number of times our work has been bought or downloaded; number of public speaking invitations.

But to truly understand how our work and ideas are changing something in the world, we should go to the core of change: people. Asking people who are interested in your work for feedback on how they view our work and ideas, and gaining a better understanding what has resonated with them is crucial.

This “soft” stuff is certainly harder and time consuming to track and understand. But it is more rewarding if we can truly grasp what about our work, ideas, and behaviour has produced a positive impact.

In developing a personal impact factor, thinking about who we have been influenced by, in which ways, and how that made us take particular actions, can provide guidance in how we would like to measure and see impact of our own ideas and work.

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