Impact? What do you mean ‘Impact’? The question keeps coming over and over so I have written this first episode of the Series to develop some food for thought on the matter. How I got involved with Impact work in the first place, what the term actually means, why it is relevant, how it can be used to bring things to another level, and all that. Are you interested in finding out more? Keep reading…
Smashes, Bangs and Wows! (My Impact Genesis)
(Impact Series – Episode 1)
I used to be a researcher. I was paid to research the law, explore legal decisions, write, explore more legal texts and write even more. But then, things began to take a U-turn. I changed jobs.
Same place. Same office. Same computer screen. Same email address. And same colleagues. But a completely new job.
My boss came to my office one day. We talked about the last papers we had in the pipeline and discussed the remaining work on that book we were working on. And then, right before leaving my office, he threw the news at me. “The Board was looking for someone to build some network for the Faculty so I suggested you’d be the right guy for it“, he said, “we need a new policy center, something to build impact, you know?“.
I didn’t have much of a clue as to what they had in mind, to be honest. I had spent the past three years working on my files, playing things with a low profile and staying deliberately outside of influence zones and games. And I was well aware that change wasn’t a preoccupation in such a heavy institution.
At the same time, I had also worked as a consultant prior to doing this, turning research into profit-making and impactful content. And I had spent some time at business school too. Over the past years, I had also developed a small network of business people, outside of my comfort zone, just to keep things real.
In short, I realized that beyond appearances, my extra-curricular experiences had apparently made an impact on someone and that they would become a strength in the academic world after all. So I started to look into the thing.
Soon after, the Dean of the Faculty asked me to refocus my work, to join the Faculty’s Research Board, and to act as Head of Impact Strategy for Hong Kong’s best legal education institution. As it turned out, our research needed to get even better than it was, and I would be responsible for building the strategy to get there.
Meeting my Impact opportunity.
I attended some workshops, went to a couple of events organized by the university. And I quickly realized that something was emerging. For some reason, the Hong Kong Universities were now following a system originally developed five years ago in the UK to give wings to academia.
Academics are paid out of taxpayer money, after all, so the Brits decided that academic work would now need to become useful to the society, outside of academia. No more “making a contribution to academic literature”, as we say.
No. Research would now need to become impacting and impactful for the rest of the world, and Impact would become a new purpose for research.
“To be impactful or not to be impactful”, I said to myself at the time. Except that this little joke has since then become way more than a joke. Impact has become a question, an objective, a road map, a personal quest for meaning, and an even more personal mission.
What is Impact?
Like all the people in the workshops I attended, the first thing I began to think about was the meaning of ‘Impact’.
Nobody had a clue, really, because researchers are trained to research and write, not to use their research to change the world. But I could see that there was something to explore out there. If only because the term was a flying saucer in a room filled with fast-thinking and troubled minds.
Truth be told, though, defining the term is a real challenge. Look for ‘Impact’ online and see for yourself. ‘Im’pakt’ has a few definitions, some of which are far more interesting than others.
The first definition I bumped into was rather unoriginal. Impact is a “marked effect or influence” which can also be considered in terms of effect or impression, it said. Not very impactful…
So I looked for more and another definition emerged: an impact is the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another one, which in this case becomes a matter of collision, crash, smash, clash and bang.
According to the Cambridge dictionary, an impact also refers to the force or action of one object hitting another, or to a powerful effect that something, especially something new, has on a situation or person. Again, something like a bang.
Better, but I needed more so I looked for a little bit of provocation and went for the definitions of the sharp and corrosive humor of the Urban Dictionary. There, I found this. First, impact “usually refers to how shocking, thought-provoking or memorable some given item is (or likely to be)”. Second, “Wow is impact”.
In sum? An impact implies a forcible contact between two things and therefore is a matter of collision, smash, and bang. But it is also a matter of challenge, thoughtful provocation, shock and Wow. Much, much better.
Impact vs Impact.
But then another definition of impact came up and spoiled the fun. Dramatically, I mean. The word I picked after that wasn’t ‘impact’ but ‘impactful’, and what I found felt like a bombshell.
When defining ‘impactful’, users of the Urban Dictionary have a largely critique eye which pictures impact as a matter of marketing-based but otherwise perfectly hollow and nonsensical concept.
In 2007, for instance, J. Spaghetti (we’re still on Urban Dictionary, remember?) defined the word ‘impactul’ as a “non-existent word coined by corporate advertising, marketing and business drones to make their work sound far more useful, exciting and beneficial to humanity than it really is“.
“This term“, Mr Spaghetti added, “is most frequently used in team building seminars and conferences in which said drones discuss the most effective ways to convince consumer zombies to purchase crap they clearly do not need or even want“.
Another definition popped up, eventually, alongside the idea that ‘impactful’ is a word “Commonly used in advertising” and which “refers to campaigns or executions with a positive effect on consumer perception or awareness“. In a talk I gave, as a matter of fact, a former advertising expert who participated in the conversation openly regretted that his late industry – whilst arguably producing Impact for its clients – only focused on what he called “meaningless creativity”.
Said differently? Beyond shock, smashes, bangs and Wow opportunities, “Impact” is also a term which denotes BS rather than strength, meaning, and impact.
My next step was obvious: I decided to disagree.
Beyond the initial disappointment, looking at those definitions got me thinking about verbs.
Excuse my French, English isn’t my native language, therefore, the wording of some definitions gave me some food for thought.
In particular: do you have an impact or do you make an impact?
I couldn’t explain the difference in the first place. In fact, I even wondered which of the two was a grammatical mistake. But both terms came up as valid. Valid but different, nonetheless, and something meaningful came out of it.
The power of “make”.
Think about it. People don’t “take” decisions, they “make” them. Said differently, a decision isn’t something you pick, it is something you provoke deliberately. So, I came up with another question. What if having an impact was not a matter of picking the low-hanging fruit but, instead, a matter of making a decision to make things smash, bang and Wow?
The distinction might seem irrelevant to you, but to me, it made an absolute difference. Shifting from provocative interpretations to verb analysis gave things a whole new dimension.
Having an impact is in the range of wishful thinking. At best, you “had” an impact in the past (congratulations), but for the majority of people, chances are that no impact has occurred yet and therefore having one is nothing but a vague goal. Having an impact is a dream, maybe a fantasy. Something impalpable and hardly measurable.
But making an impact is different. Making an Impact is all about action, about making things practical, palpable, visible and measurable. “Making an impact” denotes strength and it implies that a decision was made to smash, bang and Wow things up. And it requires the development of a strategy to turn a fantasy into something that effectively matters.
The impact you have is (nothing but) the impact you make.
I thought about the best way to explain this, and I came up with the following idea – which has then become my own message: the impact you have is nothing but the impact you make.
Said differently? Forget the marketing BS and focus on real-world change.
There is no smoke without fire, and there is no impact without decisions or actions either. Impact is something you have to provoke and generate. Impact is something you must deserve. Because Smashing change, Bangs and Wows won’t just fall from the sky.
Okay… How do we make an impact then?
The question of “how” we get there then comes up, and it is twofold.
Part of it is a matter of building a strategy and, obviously, implementing it impactfully. I will come back to this point in another article.
In my experience, indeed, there is no strategy-building without a prior realization that we, beyond the marketing BS, can make things change. ‘Things’ sounds too big here? Well, the point is to realize that we can at least make something change.
Status Quo aversion.
Making an impact always starts from an aversion to Status Quo and immobilism. Immobilism is a form of comfort, it goes without saying. At the end of the day, why should we try to change a winning team?
But immobilism is also the worst thing you can ever want. With immobilism comes a fear of challenges and a refusal to change. Before you know it, the mere idea of improving starts to be perceived as a threat. And then you are doomed. A sort of Smash, Bang and Wow, but a bad one.
Instead of accommodating with immobilism, change is the best way to impact lives. Yours, to start with. And others’, too, which is far more interesting.
On a daily basis, embracing change isn’t complicated. It can be a matter of welcoming people with a smile, a matter of being a reliable friend even though you’d better be home with a beer. It can be a matter of being useful to others, and a matter of solving problems others get stuck with, without expecting anything in exchange.
Right. But making a real impact requires more than that. Making an impact requires a decision to change things for real.
Business and all that.
I wrote previously that, as far as business is concerned, the idea of making an impact is mainly questioned as a marketing tactic which, in essence, lacks essence and meaning.
But look around you.
Take Apple or Google and Amazon, for instance.
These brands’ current impacts are rather difficult to identify because, at the moment, the main concern is either their ability to evade tax or their negative influence on small shops and merchants.
Yet, Apple revolutionized our relationship with computers, music, and phones. Google has vastly impacted our approach to information and communication. And Amazon has probably created the biggest U-turn in the industry of retail.
Look at Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Their vision was to bring technology into our homes and lives. That’s an impact they had, without a doubt. Elon Musk worked on building electric cars and roofs, but his Space-X ships are about getting us into space. Impact. Double Impact. Triple Impact.
The point is, making an Impact doesn’t need to be associated with marketing BS aimed at cheating consumers and at producing money. Making an impact with business is a decision to make things different. It comes with a necessity to build a strategy, and it is tied to a need to actually, effectively, realistically and measurably change things, beyond making cash.
Impact in the business of non-profits.
Impact goals are also – and perhaps even more – relevant in the non-profit business.
At the end of the day, people don’t give money to charity without a good reason. Charity-giving has a single purpose, which is to improve a situation and help solve a problem, to have an impact on society, one way or another.
The same goes for the Research industry, as a matter of fact. The years where making an impact on the existing literature was sufficient are gone. Think about it, what is the point of spending years researching a topic if nothing changes?
What that means is simple, Impact in such contexts is even farther from the marketing BS mentioned by Mr Spaghetti. Impact is the bread and butter of all those organizations which are expected to alleviate instead of capitalizing.
There, again, strategies need to be put into place to make the desired impact happen. But the basis is the same. It all starts from a realization that another model is worth exploring and that we, independently or as a group, can make things change.
For the same reason, making an impact also makes sense at the individual level.
At the end of the day, why couldn’t we make things change? I worked with disabled kids in the past and was blessed to have a chance to impact a tiny portion of their lives. I advised some entrepreneurs and challenged the way they saw their business strategy, to eventually help them change the way their organization worked. And I am now working on turning Impact into a message and a mission.
Opportunities to make an impact are everywhere. All it takes to do that is the realization that we, you, and I, can make a difference with some Smash, Bangs and Wows… Don’t you think?
About Antoine Martin (Ph.D.)?I am an Impact Thinking advocate and strategist. My journey with Impact began in Hong Kong in 2018 when I was tasked with developing an Impact strategy for academics. Since then, I have developed a framework for Impact Thinking and coached academics, entrepreneurs and business teams on what Impact strategies can bring to their projects. I regularly write, speak and consult on the topic, please get in touch for more information!