The clothesline paradox

If you take down your clothesline and buy an electric clothes dryer, the electric consumption of the nation rises slightly… If you go in the other direction and remove the electric clothes dryer and install a clothesline, the consumption of electricity drops slightly, but there is no credit given anywhere on the charts and graphs to solar energy, which is now drying the clothes.

Steve Baer – The Clothesline Paradox in Co-Evolution Weekly as quoted by Tim O’Reilly in WTF? What’s the Future and Why it’s Up to Us.

The clothesline paradox applies even more sharply to domestic labour, of course: the work of a professional cleaner or child-minder registers as economic activity, but the work we do cleaning our own homes or caring for our own families doesn’t, despite the same work getting done.

The problem is that we come to treasure what we measure, and end up creating incentives that cost us in ways we don’t expect. In the case of the clothesline being replaced by an electrical dryer, it’s pollution. In societies where the norm has become that all adults work outside the home (often incentivised by the state), there’s a cost in the quality of care and in the relational glue that keeps families and societies healthy.

The point for your organisation is there: think carefully about how you measure success. Clayton Christensen has written about how focusing on ‘return on net assets’ leads companies to damage their long-term prospects in the name of short term ‘efficiency’.

In my organisation we measure the overall cost of our program per child served, which encourages us to pay attention to efficient use of resources… but could lead us to find ways to avoid spending money on things like improving the design of our resources or upskilling our team – all of which would make us less effective down the road. (Christensen has also written well on how the wrong metrics can have similarly damaging effects on our personal lives.)

So it pays to be careful about what you’re measuring, and keep your eyes open for the unhelpful incentives that you’ll almost inevitably create. Staying focused on your organisation’s values (specifically about relationships and how you treat people) will help. You can do this by deliberately talking about them, regularly asking how you’re living up to them, and using them explicity to guide you in making decisions.

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