Navigating Complexity in Impact Measurement: Ethical Traps and the Quest for Certainty

Inspire to Change
4 min readJun 14


By Nora F. Murphy Johnson, PhD

In the United States and U.S.-influenced business cultures, there is an endless quest for clarity and control. As a result, we often strive for certainty. We crave linear causality, predictable outcomes, and neatly measurable impacts. Yet reality seldom accommodates. Instead, it presents us with a myriad of interconnected systems that adapt, evolve, and defy simplistic understanding. One option is to lie to ourselves and each other and continue to act as though clarity and control is within our reach if we would only work a wee bit harder. A second option is to appreciate the depth and nuance of the human experience, especially when measuring impacts — be it social, environmental, or economic. Choosing option one over option two not only leads to misguided strategies and wasted resources but it also has significant ethical implications.

The Trap of Certainty and Control

Our desire for certainty and control often tempts us to oversimplify the complexity of real-world systems. Yet the world is not merely complicated — it is complex.

Understanding the difference between complicated and complex systems is critical. So, though many of us are already familiar with these distinctions, it’s helpful to review the difference between scenarios that are simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic to make sure we all share a common understanding.

Simple (or Obvious) Environments: These are environments or systems in which the relationship between cause and effect is straightforward, predictable, and can be easily identified. There are clear rules and procedures that, if followed, will lead to a particular outcome. For example, a simple recipe or a basic assembly line could be considered a simple system.

Complicated Environments: In these environments or systems, the relationship between cause and effect exists but is not immediately apparent. It often requires expert analysis or investigation to determine the right course of action. Things like a car engine or a computer program can be considered complicated — they have many parts that interact in predictable ways, but understanding these interactions requires expertise.

Complex Environments: In complex environments or systems, the relationship between cause and effect is only apparent in hindsight. This is because the interactions are nonlinear and can lead to emergent, unpredictable outcomes. Examples of complex systems include a natural ecosystem or the stock market. In these environments, it is often more productive to probe the system with safe-to-fail experiments and then respond to what you’ve learned.

Chaotic Environments: These are systems or environments where there is no discernible relationship between cause and effect. Events are too confusing, turbulent, or urgent to wait for a knowledge-based response. In these cases, immediate action is needed to establish order and avert disaster. Examples include a natural disaster or a major societal crisis.

The sweet spot for changemakers is the edge of complexity: Not chaos, but close to it. Disruption is where creativity is unleashed, and the magic can happen.

Understanding Complexity in Impact Measurement

When we overlook complexity in impact measurement, treating the situation as though it is simple or complicated, we risk falling into several traps:

Ignoring Systems Thinking: By focusing on isolated issues without recognizing their place in a larger, interconnected system, we can neglect root causes, and our interventions may lead to unintended consequences.

Underestimating Interconnectedness: Every element in a system is linked–often subtly. Overlooking this can result in unforeseen impacts and unintended ripple effects.

Overlooking Emergence: Unique behaviors or patterns that arise from complex systems can be missed if we merely focus on individual elements without considering their collective interplay.

Assuming Linearity: The relationship between inputs and outputs in complex systems isn’t always proportional. Ignoring nonlinearity can lead to efforts that are ineffective or even counterproductive.

Neglecting Adaptivity and Feedback Loops: Complex systems adapt to changes. Failing to account for feedback loops may lead to strategies that lose efficacy over time or cause unexpected outcomes.

Overconfidence in Predictions: It’s hard to predict precise outcomes in complex systems. Oversimplifying the inherent uncertainty can lead to overconfidence and disappointing results.

Ignoring Scale Effects: The impacts and behaviors of systems can change significantly with scale. Ignoring this can result in failed replications or unforeseen consequences when initiatives are scaled up or down.

Misdefining Boundaries: How we define a system’s boundaries greatly influences the outcomes of our analysis. Excluding relevant actors or factors can lead to incomplete solutions.

Forgetting System Dynamics: Complex systems evolve over time, often in unforeseen ways. Failing to account for these dynamics can lead to short-term wins that fail in the long run.

Undermining Resilience: Overlooking a system’s ability to absorb disturbances and maintain functionality can lead to interventions that inadvertently destabilize the system or community.

The Ethical Consequences

Misrepresenting or oversimplifying complexity in impact measurement can lead to harmful consequences, making this an ethical issue.

By treating complex problems as merely complicated, we risk trivializing the challenges and diverting resources away from potentially more effective strategies. Moreover, by ignoring interconnectedness, we might contribute to existing inequities or create new ones.

In the end, appreciating complexity isn’t just about achieving accuracy in impact measurement — it’s about respecting the reality and dynamism of the systems we’re seeking to understand and transform. It’s about acknowledging our limitations, our lack of control, and our inability to predict everything. By recognizing and embracing the complexity inherent in our world, we can create more effective strategies, avoid ethical pitfalls, and truly make a meaningful difference. This requires humility, curiosity, and the courage to navigate through ambiguity and uncertainty. And in the end, isn’t that what meaningful change is all about?

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