Articulating Impact: Helpful Frameworks You Can Use

by Akshay Dinakar

Seven months ago, I panicked and experienced an internal crisis, doubting if entrepreneurship was indeed the right career path for me. I had always considered myself to be "an impact-driven individual" (whatever that meant), basing my career decision on the belief that entrepreneurship had the capacity to be the most *impactful* of all careers. So to reassure myself, I asked my mom: “How do I know that my entrepreneurial path is more impactful than other jobs?”.

My mom turned to me and said: “From a sloths’s point of view, by sleeping 15 hours a day and not bothering anyone else, they believe that they are living their life in the most impactful way.”

Not quite the crisis-resolving answer that I was hoping for.

However, I realized in that moment that the meaning of “impact” is completely self-defined. I suppose this gives almost every occupation an element of self-affirmation when considering impact, but also has the side-effect of making the term “impact” quite vague.

I felt some confusion: surely some avenues of creating impact were more valuable to humanity than others? While I recognized that the answer to that question would depend on one’s world view & personal values, I knew that I needed to access a more nuanced framework in order to better understand and articulate the type of impact I wanted to enact on the world.

I've always believed that the greatest leaders are “actively articulate”. At any moment, they maintain an ability to precisely communicate their intentions, emotional state, and purpose (mission) to others. Why is “actively articulating” a useful skill? It allows leaders to build trust with whom they are empowering, assures the quality of what they create, and enhances their mental health – allowing them to continue creating impact for a long time.

With this justification, here are two frameworks to help anyone “actively articulate” the impact they seek to create. 

Tiers of Impact

The social entrepreneurship framework (from Stanford SENSA) proposes different tiers of impact, based on the scale of intervention.

Tier 1: (Direct Impact)

Give a fisherman a fish.

Tier 2: (Skills-Building)

Teach a fisherman how to fish.

Tier 3: (Context Intervention)

Design a better fishing rod for fishermen.

Tier 4: (Reframing)

Revolutionize the fishing industry so that people never go hungry.

Higher tiers aren't necessarily better: there's a trade-off. The higher the tier, the less direct your impact will be...but at those higher tiers, you can impact more people in proportion to the time you invest.

Designers often measure the success of an intervention by how well the intention & impact of the solution align. The more indirect the impact, the harder it is to spot & evaluate this correlation.

Much of “Design Thinking” is built around the idea of identifying a small but significant inefficiency / flaw in a system, and creating a precise solution that elegantly solves the need. It’s a tip-toe way of innovating forward, but favored because small-scale improvements are actionable, evaluable, and relatively quick to implement. 

While this was the methodology my product design education drilled into me, it’s been hard to scale the Design Thinking approach up to an impact level of Tier 3 or 4, where the world of venture-backed, Visionary Entrepreneurship finds its home. Visionary Entrepreneurship is the converse of Design Thinking - it’s about taking a golden guess and incarnating a solution for humanity that a founder is convinced should exist in the world. Oftentimes, the guess is off – the intention does not align with the impact and the business “fails” (the risk of entrepreneurship).

But when one does get it right, they can take an instant leap forward for mankind, skipping years of incremental change that Design Thinking would have required to achieve the same result. Many people refer to Visionary Entrepreneurship as the "Steve Jobs" style of innovation: "We didn't know we needed an iPhone until it existed."

To introduce the second framework, it’s important to note that those who are most successful at creating impact have privilege (which comes in various form & scale) – and are extremely articulate about how their privilege differentiates them from those they are empowering.

I define "Power" as the actionable form of privilege.

The 4 Types of Power

  1. Influential: Using one’s judgement to guide the behavior, actions, and thoughts of their social following (“Pope-style” or “Instagram-influencer-style” impact).

  2. Technical: Having a highly technical & relevant set of skills that allows one to instantly & independently create solutions (“Engineer-style” impact).

  3. Capital: Having a base financial stability that gives one the means to take capital risks and afford materials to explore new directions at their will (“Bill Gates-style” impact).

  4. Political: Using personal connection, ethical judgement, or a nuanced understanding of a specific context / environment to enact top-down, systematic change through rules, regulations, and legal frameworks.

Using these two frameworks (Tiers of Impact & Types of Power), one can more precisely articulate how they plan to create impact in the world. 

It's a flexible, self-affirming spectrum: I'm personally driven towards creating Tier 3 & 4 impact, using the avenues of technical skill-set and influence as my powers of privilege.

A doctor who practices medicine and conducts research might seek to create simultaneous impact in Tiers 1-3, using a combination of technical skill-set, influence, and political power in the medical sphere.

I'll admit that these above frameworks seem to best accommodate avenues of impact that have an active output on the world (converting raw resources into value). Curious to know if you can conceive a way to incorporate the sloth's impact (which feels more internal) into either framework!

Impact is what each of us make of it, but we can all benefit by more actively articulating what it means. Thanks for reading – I hope these frameworks provide useful to you.