If the IPCC’s Special Report on climate change made you want to do something – anything – to calm the climate, swiftly followed by a sinking feeling that you just don’t know what is both doable and meaningful, and you’d rather not think about it…. You can do something meaningful! Here’s a great way to find your contribution.
When I first met with Brigid Finlayson and Carolina Karlstrom, to see whether we could work together to create the first She is Still Sustainable, we talked a lot about the kind of event we wanted to make it. And our conversation focused a lot on mood, atmosphere, emotional tone: we wanted it to be “warm, safe, friendly event which is refreshing, inspiring and supportive”.
In a recent coaching session, my client was exploring whether they had permission to do something. And, in an uncertain and fluid situation, how they would know whether they had permission or not. What if they misread the signs?
We developed a two-by-two matrix, to sort out the possibilities.
One of the things that came up again and again when I was talking to people about the new edition of Change Management for Sustainable Development, was supporting ourselves as sustainability professionals and as change-makers. There are three key pillars which support us: perspective, association, and giving ourselves a break.
In the last couple of months I have taken up climbing again, after a break of about ten years.
The atmosphere at the indoor climbing centre I go to is upbeat, dynamic, friendly.
When you hire out a carabiner and belay device - the small, beautifully engineered bits of metal which could save your life - the heavily pierced man in the hire shop will accept an RSPB membership card instead of a credit card as a deposit. It’s that kind of place.
The background music is familiar and chosen to make you smile: ABBA, early 80s pop, 70s funk.
There are cheerfully written signs dotted around to point you to the café, yoga room and organic garden as well as to the more challenging ‘Stack’ and ‘Catacombs’ – fancifully named climbing walls. Notices tell you that dogs are welcome, outside of peak times, but must not be tied to the safety equipment.
There are people whose job it is to set routes that you climb on the walls. They bolt on the brightly coloured artificial ‘holds’ in carefully planned patterns that allow for all levels: starting at an easy peasy grade 3 and carrying on right up to a surely impossible 8a. They include tricky little challenges that you have to puzzle out and then implement – can I really get my foot that high and then push down on my hand to shift my weight on it?
But don’t be fooled by the jollity and bright colours. 12 metres up is still 12 metres up, even if the holds you are balanced on look like spotted turtles or alien jellies.
I climb tied to a rope which runs from my harness through a metal chain fixed at the top of the wall, then drops back down to the bits of metal secured via another harness to my climbing partner. This is known as “top roping” and the act of holding and carefully taking in the rope - which the non-climber does - is called ‘belaying’. Your belay is the person in charge of making sure the rope will save you.
Don’t worry, there is more to this post than a lesson in climbing terminology!
If you climb this way, with a partner who is your belay, there’s something a bit funny – in fact, a bit alarming - that I’ve been taught to do at the beginning of a session.
When you have climbed up high enough that your feet are above your belay’s head – around two metres - you are supposed to fling yourself from the wall, without warning the belay.
Why would you do that?
You fling yourself from the wall to prove to you both, the climber and their partner, that they will hold you.
And the beautiful symmetry of the partnership means that as soon as you are back on solid ground and have wiped the sweat off your hands onto your trousers, you swap over and belay your partner as they make their way up the route they have chosen.
You can also climb without a partner.
It’s not just humans who might stop the rope slithering through, halting your rapid descent and leaving you swinging gently instead of writhing in agony on the floor.
Where I climb, there are also automatic belay devices – simple mechanisms which take up the slack rope for you and, like a car safety belt, stop you if you fall.
So the thing keeping you safe when you climb – actually, keeping you safe when you fall - might be a person or it might be something else. You test it just the same. You fling yourself off the wall from a relatively safe position.
I am afraid of heights and I am especially afraid of falling. Both those fears magnify a third fear – I am afraid of not being in control.
Even a couple of metres off the ground, I really don’t want to fling myself from the wall. My palms sweat. My feet - already in a gripping shape due to the tight, tight climbing shoes - curl further inwards in a reflex reaction to the very thought of falling. They are trying to grasp the footholds. I psych myself up and chicken out.
We fling ourselves from the wall at a safe height, so that we can be sure of being safe when we need to make a truly risky move twelve metres up.
Why we fling ourselves off the wall
In my life, I have put off doing some things that I really want to do, for fear of how bad it will feel if I fail. I am afraid of the shame, the crushing of my self-confidence, the public humiliation.
Your fears may be different. These are mine and I suppose they must be very precious to me because I still cling on to them after all this time.
What’s enabled me to go ahead and do the exciting things anyway – including just in this last year - is my previous experience of coming back from failure and from the excruciating shame I feel when I think I have failed.
This fear of failing is strong stuff.
Even the anticipation of that shame is really powerful too. I don’t have to actually fail, to feel the shame. I just have to imagine it happening.
In fact my palms are sweating now!
I have lately come to accept that I will feel bad while I contemplate and plan my daring actions. I will fall off the wall. I still feel bad – I haven’t learnt to avoid the fear, and I’m not sure I ever will. It’s more that I now see it as the price I pay for doing something really cool.
Taking a test fall
I’m on the climbing wall. My belay partner is relaxed and ready. They have done this before, they trust the ironmongery and the rope. They trust me. They want me to experience the exhilaration and triumph of beating the challenge from the fiendish route-setter, of getting to the top.
And yet, and yet….
OK, this is it. If I wait any longer, my pretend fall won’t be enough of a surprise to test the team.
I reach for a hold with my arm, pushing away from the wall with my legs at the same time. I’m airborne and falling for a split second, before the rope goes taut and I’m jerked to a stop.
A few minutes later, I’m 12 metres up, stretching for a hold I can’t quite reach, but launching towards it anyway because - what’s the worst that could happen?
I’m no gecko, but knowing I’m roped up to someone, or something, that will catch me means I’ve definitely left the grade 3 routes behind.
In fact, if I’d never fallen and been caught, I never would have made it beyond beginner graded climbs.
In our lives, we can all be climbers. We can all take practice falls. We can all belay for someone else.
Over to you
· What are you afraid of, that holds you back from doing the cool stuff?
· Who or what catches you when you fall?
· Who do you catch, when they fall?
Knowing that we will be caught when we fall – by a person or by something else - enables us to do greater things.
Let us climb, fall, be caught. Let us catch others.
Vertically, horizontally or circularly ambitious? Mothering or child-free, by choice or randomness? Urban or rural? Partnered for life or a free agent? Gay or straight or something else? Employed, entrepreneur or freelance?
Women who work in sustainability are all these things and more.
Every woman makes decisions about her career, her ambitions and her family. As five women who have shared their learnings, successes and failures, we know one thing for sure – there’s a lot we can learn from each other.
We want to take time out to talk about women and changing the world. Not about politics, but about personal lives and choices.
That’s why we organised She Is Sustainable: London in February 2016, a two-day gathering for women working in sustainability, allowing women to share their stories and take part in discussion sessions on all aspects of women’s work and life.
She is Sustainable spawns sprogs
Becky and the rest of the gang weren't intending or expecting that SiS would become a thing, but it has. There have been SiSs in Cambridge and Lancaster, organised on the same shoe-string lines, for love, to give younger women at the start of their sustainability careers a chance to hear from older women who've journeyed ahead of them and have a few of the battle scars to prove it.
I was lucky enough to get involved with SiS Lancaster, offering some facilitation support while I mulled on my own life and my idea for a SiS for older women. I can see links with coaching, with peer learning and with the kind of support that sustainability change agents are crying out for, in my experience.
The Lancaster event was beautifully organised by Becky Willis and Jess Phoenix, with support from the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, part of the Lancaster University. Being run at the university meant that we got to hear from some brilliant women who could bring us rigorous academic insight into gender and sustainability leadership.
Prof. Judi Marshall, whose work on the lived experience of being a sustainability change agent I've admired for years, shared insights on 'insider outsiders' and the role of gender in this. The cultural assumption and unconscious bias about the credibility and prestige of men means that there are difficult choices to be made about guest speakers at events: in the short term, is it better for our cause to have male contributors, because people will listen to them more?
We also heard from Prof. Gail Whiteman about the uncomfortable experiences early in her career which were "precious" because "they tell you what's important to you". Gail set up the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business and is bringing arctic ice to the attention of global boardrooms. Literally. She's got plans to establish an arctic base camp at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Now that I'd like to see.
To complete the trio of professors, Prof. Caroline Gatrell shared stats on the place of women in leadership including the glass cliff: women are more likely to access top positions during periods of crisis or risk. Maybe it's because they are seen as more creative or more safe. Maybe it's because they are seen as expendable. Theresa May springs to mind, as do Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman who have both 'held the fort' for Labour between 'proper' leaders.
what was it like?
As well as these insights from academic research (and the academic life), She is Sustainable made room for more personal life stories from older women, and lots of sharing among participants. The atmosphere was so warm and supportive, as well as being inspirational. Younger women heard from older women and from each other about their careers in sustainability and how these interwove with life choices and unchosen circumstances.
We spoke together about following your heart and using your head, about finding your place and moving on. We shared experiences about balancing career with caring responsbilities, and about the different kinds of women we can be and want (or don't want) to be.
We used random everyday objects to open up about how we see ourselves as women who work in sustainability.
Speaking about the unspoken
I was lucky enough to facilitate two open space sessions, where topics were proposed which perhaps might not have been if the group had not been women-only. Yes, there really was a session on periods and yes, there really was quite a lot to be shared and discussed about the impact of menstruation on work.
There was everyday sexism in the stories: the woman whose junior male colleague was addressed as the boss all the way through a business meeting; the casual assumptions about who will take the notes and make the tea.
And there was conversation about racism, ethnicity and being a woman of colour in the sustainability field.
She is (still) sustainable
I went along partly to test out my guess that SiS could be tweaked a bit to provide a brilliant way for older women to discuss their choices: if you're mid-career, would it be useful to consider what's next? Perhaps it's an "after children" conversation, or perhaps one about daring to take the next step upwards or sideways. Perhaps it's about being ready to change direction, to slow down or branch out. or to take on your biggest challenge yet. Perhaps its about how you keep credible and energetic when your body is starting to let you down.
I don't know what the conversations are that sustainability women at this later stage will want to have, but I do know that there was enthusiasm for the idea when I tested it, and I am brimming with ideas about how to adjust the SiS approach for this group of women.
Let me know what you think!
Sustainability types were discussing the Sustainable Development Goals (aka Global Goals) in London last night, at a regular meeting of The Crowd. If you are twitter-enabled, you can search for the #crowdforum tweets to follow that way.
I've got very interested in the SDGs, since being asked to write a series of articles about how business is responding, for The Environmentalist.
There was some great conversation, and I was particularly struck by Claire Melamed's view that businesses can cherry pick (or have strategic priorities) among the SDGs, as long as a business doesn't actively undermine any of the goals or targets. That seems a pretty clear minimum ask!
How would you tell if a goal is being actively undermined?
So how would you tell? Perhaps the easiest is to do an audit-style check against all 169 of the targets, and spot the krill oil which is staining the otherwise spotless business practices. Some will be easier to test than others, so the views of stakeholders will probably be useful in helping see the business's practices from a variety of angles.
What are the sanctions and disincentives?
The people who spoke about this seemed to be relying on good old fashioned campaigns to bring the undermining to public attention and turn it into a business issue for the company concerned. Which seems pretty familiar to me. One person used the Greenpeace campaign against the use of unsustainable palm oil by Nestle's Kit Kat as an example. And that campaign was way back in 2010. Friends of the Earth was launched in the UK with a mass bottle dump outside Schweppes headquarters, which became a well-known photo at the time. Social media ensures that campaigns like this can become viral in a few hours. But in essence they are nothing new.
Another person said "you'd have to be not in your right mind, to actively undermine any of these goals." And perhaps she's right. But it's clear that either lots of people haven't been in their right minds, or perhaps it's been perfectly rational to undermine social and ecological life support systems, because we are here and here isn't a great place for many of the critical issues highlighted by the global goals. Once again I find myself wobbling between irrational optimism and chronic unease.
But let's give this optimist the benefit of the doubt, and assume that it is now rational to avoid actively undermining the goals.
The claim was made, with some strength of feeling, that COP21's agreement in Paris has made a tangible difference, with analysts using climate and fossil fuel exposure to make investment recommendations. And there seemed to be general agreement in the room that this was new and significant. And today, two days after the Crowd forum event, comes the news that Peabody Energy (the world's biggest privately-owned coal producer) has filed for bankruptcy. So that's one of the 17 goals accounted for.
Other voices suggested that the 17 goals will set a broad context for action by policy makers and government, helping business decision-makers have more certainty about what the future holds and therefore being more confident to invest in goal-friendly products, services and ways of doing business. On the other hand, people noticed the apparent disconnect between the UK Government's pledges in Paris, and its action to undermine renewables and energy efficiency, and support fossil fuel extraction, in the subsequent budget and policy decisions.
Another change was the rise of the millenials, who make up increasing proportions of the workforce, electorate and buying public. Their commitment to values was seen as a reason for optimism, although there was also a recognition that we can't wait for them to clear up our mess. (As someone who still clears up her own millenial children's mess, while said young people are jetting off and buying fast fashion off the interwebs, I am perhaps a little cynical about how values translate into action for this generation.)
And the final bid for what's changed, is the recognition and willingness of players to collaborate in order to create system-level change. And the good news on this is that there is a lot of practical understanding being shared about how to make collaboration work (Working Collaboratively is just one contribution to this), and specialist organisations to help.
So has there been a tipping point?
Lots of people were insisting to me that there has. There were few negative voices. In fact, some contributors said they were bored and in danger of falling asleep, such was the level of agreement in the room. I was left with the impression that we're getting close to a critical mass of business leaders wanting to do the right thing, and they need support and pressure from the rest of us to make it in their short-term interests to do so.
So is it back to the placards, or sticking with the post-it notes?
I've been doing some more one-to-one facilitation training this autumn, with someone who is a natural. It's been a real pleasure from my perspective, as most of what I've been suggesting has been practically useful and made sense to the person I've been working with. Which is always nice!
The four sessions we had were spaced out so that three came before the crucial event which was the focus of the training, and one came after.
In the first session, we mostly worked on crafting really helpful aims for the workshop: making them crystal clear and (where this made sense) empty of content. What do I mean by that? For example, changing "agree to set up a working group on X" to "agree what action, if any, to take on X".
In the second session, we worked on design: which tools, techniques or bits of process would best help the group meet the aims.
And the third session was where it got real: going through the draft design and running little thought experiments. What if someone doesn't like this bit of process? What if people can't easily divide themselves into the two groups the process depends on? What if the round of introductions overruns? It became clear in this session that the trainee had a lot of fears about things "going wrong" in the workshop. I chose to make these fears the agenda for our session.
focus on fear?
I realise that I have an important relationship with fear. It's the emotion that butts its way in and uses up my energy. I know that a lot of people have this too. And a lot of people don't. So when I'm coaching, it's important that I notice when I feel afraid and consider whether it's my own fear, or something from my client that I'm picking up. And I know that many coaches would rather choose to work with the pull (enthusiasm, dreams, hopes, visions) than the push (what you want to avoid). I try to avoid focusing on the negative, but in this session fear seemed so clearly to set the agenda! I decided that to ignore the fears would be stubborn and unsuccessful.
What are you afraid of?
So we listed the fears on a flip chart, and then categorised them into three broad types: things that could be managed through preparation (e.g. design tweaks, process alternatives, 'things to come back to' flips, prepping a friendly participant to model brief intros); things that could be responded to 'in the moment' with body language and words that the trainee could practice in advance (e.g. interventions to respectfully request the conversation moves on); and things that might happen but would be fine.
In my mind, this third category had echoes of Nancy Kline's possible fact assumptions: to which the response from the coach or thinking partner is "That's possible. But what are you assuming that makes that stop you?" (For more on this, see Kline's classic Time to Think.)
And that would be fine
So the trainee's feared scenarios might come to pass: the group might decide at the start of the day that they wanted to add in a new chunky agenda item. And that would be fine.
The always-negative-person might complain and grouch. And that would be fine.
My trainee might be at a loss to know what to do at some point in the day. And that would be fine.
This part of the session was all about taking away the fear of these possibilities, and replacing it with curiosity, confidence or some other more positive emotion. Coupling that less fearful mindset with thinking through what she might do equipped her to be the great facilitator she turned out to be on the day itself.
So DareConfMini was a bit amazing. What a day. Highlights:
- Follow your jealousy from Elizabeth McGuane
- Situational leadership for ordinary managers from Meri Williams
- The challenge of applying the great advice you give to clients, to your own work and practice from Rob Hinchcliffe
- Finding something to like about the people who wind you up the most from Chris Atherton
- Being brave enough to reveal your weaknesses from Tim Chilvers
- Jungian archetypes to help you make and stick to commitments from Gabriel Smy
- Radical challenges to management orthodoxy from Lee Bryant
- Meeting such interesting people at the after party
No doubt things will continue to churn and emerge for me as it all settles down, and I'll blog accordingly.
There are also longer posts than mine from Charlie Peverett at Neo Be Brave! Lessons from Dare and Banish the January blues – be brave and get talking from Emma Allen.
If you are inspired to go to DareConf in September, early bird with substantial discounts are available until 17th February.
Many thanks to the amazing Jonathan Kahn and Rhiannon Walton who are amazing event organisers - and it's not even their day job. They looked after speakers very well and I got to realise a childhood fantasy of dancing at Sadler's Wells. David Caines drew the pictures.
A great little place near me runs weekly group sessions where we reflect on our lives and work together on essential skills like empathy and dealing with difference. We also take part in experiential group activities*. Today's theme was trust: the necessity of continuing to trust each other, despite the frailties and failures we know we will sometimes experience. Partway through a presentation on this, we tried an experiment: singing a round. The song was one that many of us - but not all - had sung before.
The words are about joining together to make something bigger than the whole. And so is the form. We begin by singing in unison. Then we break into groups and each group begins the song slightly later than the previous group. The tune and words reveal themselves as elements which work together as the phrases overlap, making something more delightful and interesting than the unison version.
The rounds I learnt as a child (London's Burning, Frere Jacques) used the form for its entertainment value (!) but this song uses the form to deliver and emphasise content.
I wonder how we can do the same in our facilitation training...
*Yes, I'm being a little coy here. As a confirmed atheist, it's a little uncomfortable to explain how I love going to my local Unitarian church. Discovering that the Minister is also an atheist was a nice surprise. But there you go: my notions of church have been confounded, so check it out.
"Who do they think they are preaching to?"
A visit to a client's canteen earlier this week brought me face-to-face with one extremely disgruntled staff member. In the queue, my contact pointed out the points-based reward system staff can now choose to join, which incentivises choosing a meat-free or meat-and-dairy-free meal. Like a coffee-shop loyalty card, you accumulate points and get mystery prizes. The explicit motivation is calorie-reduction and carbon-reduction: a vegan meal has, it is explained, a lower carbon footprint and is better for you.
Bottled up discontent
I asked whether there had been any controversy about the scheme, knowing that promoting a lower-impact or reduced-meat diet is considered very hard in this Defra research. Behind us, a member of staff neither of us knew spat out
"Well you're not allowed to disagree around here!"
"Who do they think they're preaching to? What makes them think they're always right? What do they think they're doing interfering with our private lives?"
She was clearly very angry about it.
The organisation in question is one which has a public and explicit commitment to a low-carbon future, and it could be expected that a high proportion of staff are personally committed to reducing their environmental impact. So this reaction was surprising.
Unpacking the outburst
I think it's worth unpacking the points, to see if there's something to be learnt about engaging staff in this kind of impact-reduction activity:
- 'Preaching' is a word often used when the recipient of the message considers themselves to be at least as 'ethical', if not more, than the person transmitting the message. Perhaps this staff member considers herself to already have a strong personal set of ethics and practices, and resents the perceived implication that she needs to be told to do more. Perhaps she is unhappy about the way the organisation approaches its corporate impacts, and resents being asked to make a personal change when she thinks not enough is happening at the bigger level.
- 'What makes them think they are always right?' I wonder if there was an opportunity for knowledgeable people within the organisation to challenge the underlying generalisation that meat-free is healthier or better from a carbon perspective, or to contribute to developing the project. Perhaps this person has specialist knowledge which leads her to be uncomfortable with this simplification?
- 'Interfering with private lives'. This is an interesting one. The setting for this initiative is a staff canteen, possibly (I don't know) subsidised by the employer. People are not obliged to eat there, although it is cheaper and more convenient than going to local cafes. The scheme is voluntary, and around 1/3 of the staff have joined it. the scheme includes small incentives for 'better' choices, but there are no disincentives for 'poor' choices. Previous initiatives include asking people to use the stairs rather than the lift, and switching off equipment when not in use. These have been successful in reducing energy use in the buildings. What is it about eating, which makes it feel part of this person's 'private life'?
- 'You can't disagree around here'. This is a big problem in any organisation. When disagreement is counter-cultural to the point where a member of staff blurts it out to a stranger... There's something unhealthy about a level of top-down orthodoxy which means that it does not feel safe to say no. Every organisation needs mechanisms and culture which enable authentic conversation (this does not mean that every decision needs to be unanimous).
Perhaps it doesn't matter that this one person feels this way. After all, staff take-up of the initiative seems pretty high, and the person I was meeting was an enthusiastic user of the points scheme.
Or this one person could be giving voice to concerns and needs which are shared more widely. If it's really the case that people find it very hard to tell colleagues that they disagree, then it will be hard to know.
Engage with resistance
Peggy Holman maintains that we serve our goals best when we engage with those who disagree and dissent. Seek out difference, listen harder, enquire into the needs and concerns which are being offered as a gift into the conversation, understand the common aims and see where a 'yes, and' response might lead.
Richard Seel similarly champions diversity as a critical condition for emergence of new ways of doing things.
Let's reflect together
What else might have been going on here? What could the scheme designers have done to avoid this? And what can they do now, to respond?
Let me know what you think...
These phrases have caught my attention recently. All were uttered by sustainability professionals working within different large well-known mainstream businesses.
"...chronic unease..." (apparently the 'price of safety')
Witty constructs: adjective/abstract noun.
Like a secret handshake, they signal the speaker knows that what's being done now is nothing like enough, that optimism is not justified (because trends have not yet reversed), but neither is panic or acute action. This is a long emergency.
At a workshop last week, the adjective/abstract noun combination favoured by was 'blessed unrest', after Paul Hawken.
The combinations catch my eye (ear?) when there's some contradiction between the words, an element of surprise. This can be very helpful when working with coaching clients: what's the insight, just out of reach, that the striking phrase is hinting at? When they capture the unknowability of this strange time we find ourselves in.
Holding out for a hero
We’re in a hole and we’re not making headway on the huge challenges that face us as a species and as a society. Our so-called leaders shy away from action which isn’t incremental and easy. We’re caught in a web of interlocking dependencies shoring up the status quo. And meanwhile environmental limits are being breached every way we turn. Why doesn’t somebody DO SOMETHING?
But hang on, what if we are the people we’ve been waiting for?
We, too, can be tempered radicals, positive deviants or social intrapreneurs – different labels for essentially the same ambiguous role: change makers on the inside of our organisation or community, wherever this may be.
This antidote to ‘great man’ leadership is explored in two books: The Positive Deviant (Parkin) helps you prepare and plan, Leadership for Sustainability (Marshall et al) is an edited collection of tales from fellow travellers, shared with a degree of honesty and openness which is unexpected outside the safety of a coaching conversation.
Who will show leadership?
Both books rightly assert that leadership can come from anywhere. The leader may be the boss, but leadership is something any of us can practice. And that’s lucky, because we need whole systems to change, not just individual organisations. And systems don’t have a boss. Leadership is necessarily distributed throughout the system, even if some people have more power than others.
Parkin’s positive deviant is someone who does the right thing
“despite being surrounded by the wrong institutions, the wrong processes and stubbornly uncooperative people”.
They work to change the rules of the game. Rather than waiting for stepping stones to appear they chuck in rocks, building a path for others as they go.
Effective leadership comes from surprising places within hierarchical structures, and can arise in situations where there isn’t any formal organisation at all. This makes the positive deviant quite close to the tempered radical, yet Meyerson's work is a surprising omission from Parkin's index and bibliography.
Marshall et al see leadership
“as much [in] the vigilante consumer demanding to know where products have come from as [in] the chief executive promoting environmentally aware corporate practices.”
So none of us is off the hook.
What kind of leaders do we need?
If we are all in a position to show leadership, which qualities do we need to hone, to help us be really good at it?
Parkin is clear that we need to be ethical and effective.
As Cooper points out in one of the chapters of Leadership for Sustainability, the scale of the transformation implied by how bad things are now means that doing things right is not enough: we need to do the right things.
It is not enough to show leadership merely in the service of your own organisation or community. With sustainability leadership the canvas is all humanity and the whole planet (All Life On Earth including Us, as Parkin puts it). Regular readers of this blog, and participants on the Post-graduate Certificate in Sustainable Business will know that this is one of the distinctions I make between 'any old organisational change' and 'organisational change for sustainable development'. See the slide 22 in the slide show here for more on this and other tensions for sustainability change makers.
To do this, the Positive Deviant has a ‘good enough’ understanding of a range of core sustainability information and concepts, and Parkin summarises a familiar set of priority subjects. Less familiar are the snippets of sustainability literacy from classical antiquity which liven things up a bit: Cleopatra’s use of orange peel as a contraceptive and Plato’s observations of local climatic changes caused by overenthusiastic logging.
If you already know this big picture sustainability stuff, you may feel you can safely skip Parkin’s first, third and fourth section. Not so fast. I read these on the day DCLG published its risible presumption in favour of sustainable development. DCLG’s failure to mention environmental limits and the equating of sustainable development with sustainable building is a caution: perhaps people who might be expected to have a good understanding of sustainability should read this section, whether they think they need it or not!
We need to understand the kinds of problems we’re facing. Parkin offers use Grint’s useful sense-making triad to understand different kinds of problems which need different approaches:
- tame (familiar, solvable, limited uncertainty),
- wicked (more intractable, complex, lots of uncertainty, no clear solutions without downsides) and
- critical (emergency, urgent, very large) problems.
The problems of unsustainability are very largely wicked (e.g. breaking environmental limits), and some are critical (e.g. extreme weather events).
Complex, uncertain and intractable situations require experimentation and agility, according to Marshall et al. Parkin echoes this:
“By definition, we’ve not done sustainable development before ... so we are all learning as we go.”
Marshall et al go further:
“we doubt if change for sustainability can often be brought about by directed, intentional action, deliberately followed through.”
Superficial change may result, but not systemic transformation. So leadership demands that we embrace uncertainty and release control. This is pretty much what I'm trying to articulate here, so you'd expect me to agree. I do.
Parkin is dismissive of understandings of leadership in the context of chaos or distributed systems. She may be right that it is a perverse choice to lead in this way if you are within an organisation which functions well in a predictable external context. But as we have seen, leadership is most urgently required in situations which are much less simple than this, where there isn’t an obvious person with a mandate to be 'the leader'. Dispersed leadership is a more accurate description of reality and a more practical theory in these situations. There are some well-thought of organisational consultants and theorists worth reading on this. For example Chris Rodgers and Richard Seel have both influenced my thinking. AMED's Organisations&People journal regularly carries great articles if you want to explore this side of things.
From the installation of secret water-saving hippos in Cabinet Office (Goulden in Leadership for Sustainability) to John Bird setting up the Big Issue or Wangari Maathai founding of the "deliciously subversive" Green Belt Movement (some of Parkin’s choices as Positive Deviant role models), the reader can’t help but be personally challenged: how do I compare, in my leadership? Am I ethical? Am I effective?
How will we get them?
How can we make ourselves more effective as leaders, where-ever we find ourselves? How can we help others to show leadership?
These questions bring us to the educational and personal development aspect of these books.
Education and training
Leadership for Sustainability is a collection of personal stories gleaned from people who have been through the MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice at the University of Bath’s School of Management (succeeded by Ashridge Business School’s MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility and the MA in Leadership for Sustainability at Lancaster University School of Management). Parkin designed Forum for the Future’s Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development. So you can expect that both books have something to say about how we educate our future leaders.
Parkin dissects the ways business schools have betrayed their students and the organisations they go on to lead. Unquestioningly sticking to a narrow focus of value, not understanding the finite nature of the world we live in, and avoiding a critique of the purpose of business and economy, by and large they continue to produce future leaders with little or no appreciation of the crash they are contributing to.
Marshall and her colleagues have shown leadership in this field, using a Trojan horse approach by setting up their MSc in the heart of a traditional business school, and seeding other courses. Positive deviance in practice!
Formal training aside, we can all improve our sustainability leadership skills.
Parkin argues that as well as having a ‘good enough’ level of sustainability literacy, Positive Deviants need to practice four habits of thought. These are:
- Resilience – an understanding of ecosystems, environmental limits and their resilience, rather than the personal robustness of the change maker.
- Relationships – understanding and strengthening the relationships between people, and between us and the ecosystems which support us.
- Reflection – noticing the impact of our actions and changing what we do to be more effective, as a reflective practitioner.
- Reverence – an awe for the universe of which we are a part
Of those four habits of thought, reflection is the one closest to the heart of Marshall’s Leadership for Sustainability approach.
Marshall, Coleman and Reason are committed to an action research approach, seeing it as
“an orientation towards research and practice in which engagement, curiosity and questioning are brought to bear on significant issues in the service of a better world.”
In her chapter, Downey reminds us of the ‘simple instruction at the heart’ of action research
“take action about something you care about, and learn from it.”
Marshall et al tell us that action research was central to the structure and tutoring on their MSc. I have to confess to being unclear about the distinctions between action inquiry, action research and action learning. Answers in the comments section, please!
Marshall et al’s action learning chapters are useful to anyone involved in helping develop others as managers, coaches, consultants, teachers, trainers and so on – required reading, in fact, for those wrong-headed business schools which Parkin criticises so vehemently.
The power of the action research approach shines through in the collection of twenty-nine stories, which made this book – despite the somewhat heavy going of the theoretical chapters – the most compelling sustainability book I’ve read in a long time. People have taken action about things they care about, and they have learnt from it.
Their stories demonstrate that we encourage people to show leadership in part by allowing them to be humble and to experiment, not by pretending that only the perfect can show leadership. The stories do not trumpet an approach or sell us a technique. They are travellers’ tales for people who’ll see themselves in the narrative, and be inspired and comforted by it.
What does it feel like, to be this kind of leader?
Does this kind of leader sound like you yet? It could be – anyone can show leadership. But perhaps you’re sceptical or looking for a reason why it can’t be you? It sounds like a lot of hard work and there’s no guarantee of success.
Marshall and her colleagues on the MSc course have evidently created a safe space for people to reflect about their doubts and uncertainties as well as their hopes and insights. Chapters including this kind of personal testimony from people like Gater, Bent and Karp are intriguing, dramatic and engaging.
Karp’s story about food procurement shows difference between action learning approach and leader as hero – she’s as open about the set-backs as the successes.
I instantly recognised Bent’s description of holding professional optimism with personal pessimism, and many people I know have had that same conversation: wondering where their bolt-hole will be, to escape the impacts of runaway climate change.
Gater’s story in a brilliantly honest account of his work within a mainstream financial institution, moving a certain distance and then coming up against a seemingly insurmountable systemic challenge. In a model of authentic story-telling, he describes tensions I have heard so many organisational change agents express. He talks about visiting his colleagues ‘in their world’ and inviting them to visit him in his. At the end of his story, the two worlds remain unreconciled,
“but it was okay – I had done what I could do as well as I believe I could have done it, and that had to be enough.”
Both books start from the premise that we can’t wait for others to show leadership – we need to show leadership from where we are.
But we know that’s hard: Downey reminds us that
“…those who protect the status quo get rewarded for the inaction that slows down change, while disturbers-of-the-peace who send warning signals are disparaged, demoted or dismissed.”
But for her that’s not an excuse to hang back:
“we are not too small, and there is no small act. Either way we shape what happens.”
Transparency alert: Penny Walker is an Associate of Forum for Future, of which Sara Parkin is a Founder Director. Penny has also been a visiting speaker on the MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice run by Judi Marshall, Gill Coleman and Peter Reason, as well as being a tutor on what might be seen as a competitor course, the Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business run by the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership in conjunction with Forum for the Future.
A shorter version of this review was first published in Defra's SDScene, here.
I've met some interesting and challenging facilitators recently who have helped me reframe and explore my facilitation work and my sustainable development aims. Our conversations together have been so refreshing and enriching, we wondered if it might be possible to open them up to a wider group...
So we have created Deep Open.
It's a one-day workshop for people who are interested in groups, conversation, change and sustainable development. We hope to enable conversations which allow us to be aware of our feelings (physical and emotional), alert to difference and conflict, challenging and honest. We're going to experiment with having our feelings rather than letting our feelings have us. We're going to experiement with not distracting ourselves when things feel uncomfortable. We're going to try to resist being task-focussed, whilst staying together with purpose.
If you are intruiged by this - rather than irritated - then you might want to join us on 19th May in London for this workshop.
I've just got back from a great workshop organised by ODiN and run by Delta7. We explored the use of pictures, in particular those which visualise 'the elephant under the table'. It's always great to see some old friends and meet new people. Also good to have the time to reflect on stucknesses and opportunities in my own work which might helps us in this collective endeavour of forging a sustainable future.
So Julian's picture about climate change at first felt like a comfortable one for me to look at and discuss. It was familiar territory, summarised what I consider to be an important part of my own work and practice, and gave me a platform to build on.
Someone raised the question of the shadow side of naming 'elephants under the table'. (I can't attribute this insight, as ODiN meetings are Chatham House.) He said that by 'thingifying' the metaphor of the elephants under the table, we can shrug off our personal responsibility for them. I am not forgetful: I have 'senior moments' which exist independently of me. I am not failing to pull my weight around climate change: society is in the grip of denial.
So here's my challenge to myself: to reflect on the sustainable development elephants, and give people courage to name them, without 'thingifying' them and thus distancing myself from them.
We got together with friends to go for a walk last Saturday: an urban jaunt of six miles or so, starting from our homes in N16 (North London). We picked up the Capital Ring walk at the Castle Climbing Centre, stopping off to have a quick look at the thriving fruit and vegetable garden round the back. Part of this site is run by Growing Communities as part of its Patchwork Farm, and supplies salad to local organic eaterie the Fat Cat Cafe on Stoke Newington Church Street. On past the reservoirs and we followed the canal round to Finsbury Park, where local Transition Town group were holding some sort of event. We stop for a bit of cake (no tea, sadly) and soak up the optimistic face of local resilience.
On to the Parkland Walk. This is a disused railway line which has become a much-loved and well-used path for cyclists, walkers and runners.
This is where we met the Kübler-Ross change curve, restyled as an artwork helping Parkland Walk passers-by move "From ignorance to bliss... confronting the psychology of Peak Oil".
I've been impressed at how useful this model is in helping us to understand our reactions to climate change since being introduced to it in this context by David Ballard some years ago.
The artwork had the different stages at intervals along the path, each marked by a word and ceramic faces hanging down around it. Enjoy this selection.
Our little party responded to this conversation piece. It was a chance to explain Peak Oil, and discuss its likely consequences. We also pondered the different ways you might "accept" climate change.
I was reminded once again about how much of my work at the moment is about adapting to climate change (for example, facilitating stakeholder workshops about managed realignment at Medmerry and a separate stakeholder engagement process of UK's first Climate Change Risk Assessment).
It was a chance to discuss terminal illness and debate the validity of the change curve. And we also wondered about the ceramic faces - which of them embodied the stages most convincingly?
Ever been in a meeting where everyone is sure they've tried everything, and nothing works? And nothing will ever work?
And it's everyone else's fault?
Sure you have!
Tempered radicals and other internal change agents face this kind of situation alot. So do external consultants, activists and coach / facilitators.
"The eco-champions meetings I go to are a real groan fest!"
When I was faced with this heartfelt description in a training workshop, we spent a bit of time coming up with ideas. But I was sure there must be some even better approaches than the ones we suggested.
The useful suggestions from fellow facilitators, coaches and OD (organisational development) professionals gave me a lot of chew on, and the result is this article. It was first published in the environmentalist, and has also been reproduced in the IAF Europe newsletter.
Your own experiences and suggestions are very welcome!
I'm finding it hard to listen to the news or read about the Copenhagen meeting, except through the fractured glimpses from other people's blogs. Reminds me of peeping at Dr Who through my fingers from behind the sofa. Can't watch properly. Can't look away completely either. These are the ones I've found particularly interesting :
- George Monbiot - taking a very big picture on how we, as a species, divide into types about climate change, and showing very eloquently why this is so hard.
- Living on Sunshine - the title of this blog alone is enough to raise the spirits, and with its provocative strapline "how old will you be in 2050?" (personally, 84, if I get there) reminds us old folk that if we're not going to lead, we'd better get out of the way and let the youngsters do it.
- Mark Lynas - surprisingly optimistic
- Jonathon Porritt - sounding comfortable (if that's the word) back amongst the activists and campaigners.
Will someone tell me what happened when it's over?
A bright, warm, sunny, late October day.
The sky is blue, butterflies are dancing through the air and a fat red dragonfly buzzes us as we walk along the footpath in our T-shirts.
I want to lose myself in how lovely it is, but part of me is saying "We'll be nostalgic about cold cloudy autumn days with proper rain once climate change kicks in".
Curses! Sustainable development change agents have a hard time of it, what with being so aware of impending ecosystem collapse and the paltry efforts our organisations are making to stop it.
Can't we just enjoy the sunshine and let tomorrow worry about itself?
How do we feel about it? And how do we help ourselves feel effective, empowered and persuasive in the face of the latest information on ice melt, ocean pH and HIV/Aids? This survey of organisational change agents may help you feel less alone.
Take a look at this slide show, that illustrates the results of the same survey and draws some conclusions.
What do you feel about it?
*Update: Jonathon Porritt blogs about optimism and pessimism here.
*Update 2015: Roger Harrabin writes about scientists's tears, and the comments are very telling too.
I work with this great mentor, called Hilary Cotton. She's coached me over a long period of time, and her insights and support have been invaluable.
In our last session, I was describing the development of this website, and how the process that the web development team took me through obliged me to think really hard about what I do to help clients and to develop my field. (Thanks Jonathan, David and Matthew!)
I mentioned the challenge that I have set myself here - for all my work to contribute to real change for sustainable development.
The work that needs doing is the work of transformation, and that's where my passion is.
But, maybe inevitably, it isn't where all my work is.
Some of the work clients ask for is a bit more workaday - more about being a bit better in today's context, than co-creating a transformed future.
And I was feeling uncomfortable about the incongruence, to the point of wondering if I should change the text on the page.
Thanks to Hilary's incisive questions, I had an insight: I was disappointed that not all my work is transformational, and I was letting my disappointment get right in the way.
The incisive questions technique leads you to identify limiting assumptions and replace them with liberating assumptions.
Here's the liberating assumption I came up with, which is also a reframing of my emotional response:
If I knew that respecting my disappointment will lead to understanding better the opportunities for transformation, I will pay it proper attention and be unafraid of it.
So here's the reframe: I can view my disappointment as a phenomenon, and be curious about it and what it teaches me about transformation.
I feel disappointed in what I've been able to do in this piece of work. That's interesting.
And more, I can respect my disappointment, as a useful companion which can remind me about what I value and what my ambitions are.
Hello, Disappointment. What can I learn from walking with you, looking you in the face and studying you for a bit?
And then I can bid it goodbye, and try on another attitude.
I'm going to look at this another way: with curiosity about what will happen, gratitude that the work was brought to me, and openness to what might emerge from it.
And I won't be afraid of being disappointed in the future.