The Nebulous Nature of Influence

Measuring influence is tricky business. Influence differs from impact in that impact usually comes with a set of predetermined and measurable criteria. Influence is more nebulous as it is often about changing behaviours and mindsets over time. The prevailing preference for those looking to show stakeholders how well a group, initiative or strategy is working is to measure impact. It’s understandable. It comes with easily digested numbers.

But numbers have their own shortcomings. In the forward to Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Stephen Pinker suggests that we have lots of ways to measure impact and human behaviour but often…

…we’ve puréed the complex texture of cognition into a single number.

The nuances and subtleties of influence and humanity get lost it that puréed number. At the centre of all learning endeavours is humanity. Systems, policies, measures, and technology are perpetually bound to it. When we think we have a technology problem or a measurement problem, we are really just skirting the human problem behind it. The question remains. How do we measure influence? And, maybe more importantly, what do we do with the results?

As part of a reflection on the year, our team recently participated in a Mining Successes Protocol. The protocol is based on the work of Jenni Donohoo and was meant to reveal the whyrather than the whatof our successes this year. When we were successful this year, why? What conditions or strategies do we think contributed to our success? In reflecting on the outcomes of the protocol, some common themes emerged. Looking through the list, it dawned on me that they are almost all about influence and we didn’t measure them.

Build CapacityConnect PeopleCreate ChampionsCultivate TrustLeverage TechnologyDocument LearningDifferentiate LearningKnow Our WhyMake Thinking VisibleKnow The ResearchReflect On Learning

The emerging themes from our teams’ reflections using a mining successes protocol.

As if measuring influence wasn’t hard enough, it’s also a moving target. A person or team’s influence is both fluid and contextual. It changes over time and manifests itself differently depending on the individuality and context of those in its sphere. It is also dependent on the type of influencer you are measuring.


In Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, he shares “The Law of the Few.” which describes three types of influencers;

  • Connectors: They know a lot of people with diverse interests and skills. They use this network to connect people who can learn from each other.
  • Mavens: They have vast knowledge and passion for an idea and a desire to share it. They are on the look out for people who could benefit from their expertise.
  • Salesman: They are charismatic persuaders. They lead you to need new needs you didn’t know you needed.

Much of the content online regarding influence and how to measure it is from the marketing and communications industries. I’ve been thinking about reach, resonance and relevance as a starting place to understand how to measure the influence we have on learning from the classroom to the boardroom.

Reach:Influence is not linear, circular or even spherical (it’s more of a geoid). We all have influence with our peers and those we serve, those we supervise and those who supervise us. How far we can reach and in which directions impacts our influence. It is not just about the number of people you reach but rather the reaching of the right people. Does that reach make it to the student desk?

Resonance: Influence has the ability to provoke, intensify and enrich the thinking of others. It can evoke a response and when the conditions are right, change behaviour. It is that action that contributes to a person’s influence. You know the feeling you get when you hear/see someone say/do something (idea or strategy) that you have been sharing with them. That is resonance.

Relevance:Influence is only truly impactful if the content or the message is meaningful to the audience. Influential people are keenly aware of the context in which they and their audience find themselves. Keeping student and staff learning at the core of our messages and content adds to our influence.

Lastly, there is the Hawthorne or Observer Effect. Once you observe or measure something, you alter it. When people think that the measure you are using is actually the goal, they treat it differently. When measures become the goal or target, they overshadow the original goal and cease to be a good measure.

So maybe we don’t need a way to measure influence? Maybe it is the shining of the light on influence as something to be discussed, reflected upon, valued and celebrated that is important?

If we don’t reflect on the influence of our people, we won’t know how to support their growth.
If we don’t value and celebrate the influence of our people, we risk marginalizing their contributions.

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