Noble Pursuit Syndrome

Earlier this week, I told my friend, Jeff Mohr, about a strange result from a survey that we took last year about nonprofits’ experiences working with consultants. As Rebecca Petzel noted in her writeup of the results, the nonprofits we surveyed generally expressed a high degree of satisfaction in the quality of their consultants’ work, but the majority also said that the work had not stuck. (Here’s some additional analysis performed by a larger group of participants at a followup workshop.)

How could organizations be satisfied with the work if it didn’t stick?

Jeff’s response was to cite a term that his dad, Mike Mohr, likes to use: “Noble Pursuit Syndrome.” It seems that folks in the social change space often rationalize work by suggesting that the intentions were good, therefore the work could not have been bad.

Not only is this something I observe others do all the time, it’s something I personally do all the time! My higher self is aware of this and tries to counterbalance it, which is a big reason why I ultimately left consulting. But it’s also a big reason why I stayed in consulting so long. I and my team would work our butts off on an inspiring project, and at the end of the project, we would review our often softly-framed success metrics, discuss all of the things that we thought went well, then collect our checks and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

I always felt (and still do feel) completely validated from a market standpoint. But it was hard to truly assess the quality of our work from a social impact standpoint. While I tried (and am still trying) to be thoughtful and rigorous about impact, I often found (and am still finding) myself falling back on Noble Pursuit Syndrome. It’s a challenge, and I believe it’s a serious problem in this space.

Jeff said that Mike has threatened to write more about the syndrome. I, for one, would love to hear what he has to say, and I hope that others share their thoughts and experiences with this as well.

3 replies to “Noble Pursuit Syndrome”

  1. Excellent term. I’ve certainly struggled with this. In fairness, though, measuring the social impact of *anything* is hard–to say nothing of the challenge of measuring the social impact of consulting, which is usually very indirect. I’d happily settle for being able to clearly and consistently measure impact *on the clients* and trust that if one chooses clients well and measurably helps them, that social impact will result.

  2. I'm not sure that this is a problem unique to the social change space. It's also common in academic support, for example. Teachers tend to be pretty forgiving.

    IME, you can retrospect from a great distance and evaluate work, and know pretty well whether it had impact or at least laid the groundwork for future changes. But I think there's a fundamental problem that any work which doesn't produce some kind of stuff is really hard to measure from up close (in space or time). Without a way to measure, it's hard to keep the faith.

    I wonder if we could devise a scale on which to classify "measurability", and experimentally determine a minimum viable measurability to keep change agents involved.

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