Reframing how we measure success – Scott Crawford Morrison

29th July 2021

Illustration by Jenny Capon

Scott Crawford Morrison delivered this talk at 'Scotland's Climate Assembly and the Cultural Sector' on 29th June 2021.

It concludes with three key recommendations for how the cultural sector can reframe how we measure success, in order to align with climate change targets, and how we can contribute to a wider societal shift.

A recording of Scott’s talk, with slides, is available here: https://vimeo.com/showcase/8642829

My name is Scott Crawford Morrison, and I work in the classical music sector. I come from an arts management background rather than a climate or policy background, but, for the past five years, as you’ve heard, I’ve been working hard at the forefront of making change in the organisations I’ve worked for, and in Scottish classical music sector as a whole.

As an introductory caveat, I would like to note that in my experience, short talks like this one are most effective at generating discussion when they’re a bit provocative. So, I’m going to offer some intentionally bold ideas and questions to get you thinking.

The goal that I’ve been brought here today to discuss is Scotland’s Climate Assembly’s 16th: reframing the national focus and vision for Scotland’s future away from economic growth and GDP in order to reflect climate change goals. The subsequent recommendation to the Scottish Government is: business and government to adopt a measurement framework for success that incorporates sustainability, wellbeing and happiness alongside profit.

So, as I see it, how to reframe how we measure success is a two-part question, with two sides.

The two parts of the question are a ‘how’, and a ‘what’:

  • Number 1: a practical discussion of how we measure success.
  • Number 2: a more conceptual discussion about what we define as success.

There are also two sides to this two-part question.

  • A: how do we reframe and measure success internally for creative works and industries?
  • B: how do the arts as a sector help with the wider national effort of reframing how society measures success?

I’m going to look over the next five minutes at the two parts of the question and the two sides.

Part 1: the ‘how’. How we measure success and what we define as success are intrinsically linked. To illustrate the potential malleability of this relationship, I want to refer to an essay called “What Data Can’t Do” from the New Yorker, which I read one lockdown day in March of this year. Writer Hannah Fry notes some historical examples of this relationship:

  • Soviet textile factories, she writes, were required to produce quantities of fabric that were specified by length, so looms were adjusted to make long, narrow strips.
  • Uzbek cotton pickers, judged on the weight of their harvest, would soak their cotton in water to make it heavier.
  • Similarly, when America’s first transcontinental railroad was built in the 1860s, companies were paid per mile of track. So, a section outside Omaha, Nebraska was laid down in a wide arc rather than a straight line, adding several unnecessary yet profitable miles to the rails.

She goes on to quote this interesting snippet from James Gustave Speth:

We tend to get what we measure, so we should measure what we want.”

Part 2: the ‘what’. So what is it that we want? And what do the arts currently measure as success? Well, in my experience, many of the current primary metrics of success are quantitative. That is, things like numbers of tickets sold, number of participants reached, number of international performances, number of reviews, number of online views, retweets, engagements, and ultimately, they’re judged on deviation from budget: how much above or below the projected costs they’ve come in. It’s true that the arts sector recently has been getting to grips with the quantitative side of sustainability, calculating emissions and measuring waste. And though most of us are now tracking these things, I believe that they’re not key in the decision-making process yet.

For example, if a show sold the highest number of tickets, racked up the most international performances, reviews and social media engagements, but was also the highest emitting show of an organisation’s season, at this point, would that organisation consider the show a success or failure? I think it’s likely they’ll consider a success. And I want to ask whether we need to adjust that, or nuance that. I’d also like to suggest that, as a sector, if we continue to prioritise the ease of collecting numbers, and have the expectation that they will go up each year, we will continue to be stuck in an endless growth mindset.

Though for seemingly well-intentioned ends, the expectation of endless growth in the arts is exactly the same mindset that led to the climate crisis, leading to patterns of overwork and overconsumption. I think we should be aware of this similarity, and have deeper discussions about the potential complicity of our own expectations of endless growth, and the endless growth mindset that has led the planet to the point of environmental collapse.

In the interest of time, just now, I’ll highlight just one current measure of success that I think requires rethinking, which is international touring. International touring, particularly in the classical music sector, is certainly one of the key measures of success among peers, yet it is also often the biggest source of an organization’s emissions.

I posit that one-off international performances need to be a thing of the past. We need to work to override the current connotations of glamour with a sober acceptance of the terrible damage international touring is doing to the planet. And we need to adjust our ideas of success, our business models and our ways of decision-making accordingly.

So just to close, I’ll return to the two sides of the question. First of all, in terms of how we reframe success as a sector internally, my brief recommendations are:

  1. We shouldn’t just track carbon emissions after the fact, we should project for them in the same way that we would financially for upcoming activity.
  2. I think we need to interrogate our own values, honestly, asking what we think is successful and giving deep thought to why we think that.
  3. Lastly, I think we need to make emissions a key part of our decision-making process.

In terms of how we contribute to a national shift in reframing success: I believe the arts are leading the way in transforming as individuals, organisations and as a sector. By talking openly, honestly, in a compelling way about how we’re making change, I believe that we’re uniquely well placed to help with a wider societal shift.

I think the arts need to be experimental and bold, not just in the rehearsal room and on stage, but in the office and boardroom, when strategic decisions are being made. I think we need to talk more to our audiences about the changes we’re making and why. And lastly, I think we need to be honest and transparent about the whole process.

Thank you very much.


Scott Crawford Morrison works in the UK classical music sector, and is a founding member of the Green Arts Initiative Steering Group. From 2016 to 2021 he was Projects and Development Manager with Scottish Ensemble in Glasgow. He is now Senior Development Manager at Sage Newcastle.

You can find more talks and outputs from the event with Scotland’s Climate Assembly on this page.

Illustrations and text on the theme of reframing how we measure success

Measuring Success Breakout – Jenny Capon

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