If you want to make your organisation better from a sustainability perspective, you need to understand what your organisation wants from you, in relation to sustainability and in relation to change. What is your mandate?
Every single place at this first still conversation has been snapped up - its theme of personal resilience has clearly touched a nerve. Coming along are people like the CEO of a sustainability NGO, the head of sustainability at a local authority, the group sustainability manager at a nationally known construction company and a director from a pioneering sustainable business think tank.
Why is it so popular?
Trump and Brexit have a lot to do with it: turbulence, uncertainty, and the sudden swing from new orthodoxy to populist backlash mean that we need to recharge our batteries and gird our loins for new struggles.
The bad news in the data about things like temperature rise, ice melt and coral reefs lead to real grief and disempowerment. Seeing how hard-hearted some of our fellow citizens are about people who are not ‘like them’ can make us question our assumptions.
It is right that we should examine how we are doing things. And still conversations promise a chance to do that in a wholly supportive, trusting and nurturing way.
I’ll be running a waiting list, so do get in touch if you would like to join that. And with this level of interest, it’s likely to run again and you can be among the first to know.
Other still conversations
In April our theme will be 'where next with my sustainability strategy', and in May we'll talk about 'getting sustainability into the organisation's strategy'. If you're a sustainability leader and these themes appeal to you, please take a look.
Manuel, the hapless and put-upon waiter at Fawlty Towers, was diligent in learning English, despite the terrible line-management skills of Basil Fawlty. As well as practising in the real world, he is learning from a book. Crude racial stereotypes aside, this is a useful reminder that books can only take us so far. And the same is true of Working Collaboratively. To speak collaboration like a native takes real-world experience. You need the courage to practise out loud.
The map is not the territory
The other thing about learning from a book is that you'll get stories, tips, frameworks and tools, but when you begin to use them you won't necessarily get the expected results. Not in conversation with someone whose mother tongue you are struggling with, and not when you are exploring collaboration.
Because the phrase book is not the language and the map is not the territory.
Working collaboratively: a health warning
So if you do get hold of a copy of Working Collaboratively (and readers of this blog get 15% off with code PWP15) and begin to apply some of the advice: expect the unexpected.
There's an inherent difficulty in 'taught' or 'told' learning, which doesn't occur in quite the same way in more freeform 'learner led' approaches like action learning or coaching. When you put together a training course or write a book, you need to give it a narrative structure that's satisfying. You need to follow a thread, rather than jumping around the way reality does. Even now, none of the examples I feature in the book would feel they have completed their work or fully cracked how to collaborate.
Yours will be unique
So don't feel you've done it wrong if your pattern isn't the same, or the journey doesn't seem as smooth, with as clear a narrative arc as some of those described in the book.
And when you've accumulated a bit of hindsight, share it with others: what worked, for you? What got in the way? Which of the tools or frameworks helped you and which make no sense, now you look back at what you've achieved?
Do let me know...
Here's a nice exercise you can try, to help people base their thinking about organisational change on real evidence. Running workshop sessions on organisational change is a core part of my contribution to the various programmes run by the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership. This week, a group of people from one multi-national organisation met in Cambridge to further their own learning on sustainability and organisational responses to it. My brief was to introduce them to a little theory on organisational change, and help them apply it to their own situation.
Theory is all very well - I love a good model or framework. But sometimes people struggle to make the links to their experience, or they use descriptive models as if they were instructions.
This exercise gave them time to consider their direct experience of organisational change before the theory was introduced, so that they had rich evidence to draw on when engaging critically with the theory.
Step one - a change that happened
At tables, I asked them to identify a change that has happened in their organisation, of the same scale and significance as they think is needed in relation to sustainable development. All of the tables looked at some variation of the organisation's response to dramatically changing market conditions (engaging with a different customer base, redundancies).
Step Two - four sets of questions
I then asked the groups to discuss how this change really happened (not how the organisation's change policy manual said it should have happened). I offered four sets of questions:
- First inklings e.g. How did you know the change was coming? How did it begin? What happened before that? What happened after that? What changed first?
- People e.g. Who were the main characters who helped the change to happen? Who tried to stop it happening? Who was enthusiastic? Who was cynical? Who was worried?
- Momentum and confirmation e.g. What happened that provided confirmation that this change really is going to happen, that it’s not just talk? How was momentum maintained? What happened to win over the people who were unhappy?
- Completion and continuation e.g. Is the change complete, or are things still changing? How will (did) you know the change is complete?
Step Three - debrief
Discussions at tables went on for about 20 minutes, and then we debriefed in plenary.
I invited people to share surprises. Some of the surprises included the most senior person in the room realising that decisions made in leadership team meetings were seen as significant and directly influenced the way people did things - before the exercise, he had assumed that people didn't take much notice.
I also invited people to identify the things that confirmed that 'they really mean it', which seems to me to be a key tipping point in change for sustainability. Some of the evidence that people used to assess whether 'they really mean it' was interesting: the legal department drafting a new type of standard contract to reflect a new type of customer base; different kinds of people being invited to client engagement events. These 'artifacts' seemed significant and were ways in which the change became formalised and echoed in multiple places.
After the evidence, the theory
Let me know how you get on, if you try this.
You're trying to get your organisation to use sustainability thinking (social justice, ethics, environmental limits) to inform its strategy and practice. It can feel lonely. But you are not alone! There are thousands of sustainability change makers just like you in other organisations. What do your peers think and feel about this journey you are making apart, together? This survey gives a glimpse of how they see themselves, and the challenges they face. (Or, of how you see yourselves, since I expect some readers of this blog took part in the survey. Thanks!)
(Greener Management International has published the full article and you can read it here. There are other fascinating pieces in the same edition, including a couple on labeling / certification, and on organisational change strategies.)
Here are some of the headlines.
Just a job, or part of a wider movement?
The people who took part in the survey are working for change towards sustainability either as (part of) their job or through some recognised network of champions. But they do not see this as 'just a job'. Over 95% of them agreed with these two statements about why they do this work.
I want to do work which is in line with my values and interests.
It is my contribution to a wider change in society which I think needs to happen.
Are they changing their organisations?
So how are they doing: are their organisations changing? People used the Dunphy scale to show where their organisation was when they joined it and where they think it is now. They do indeed think that their organisations are changing, and mostly in the right direction! There has been a clear shift towards the right of Dunphy’s spectrum, and those respondents who have been in their organisation for longer have seen it move further, in line with what you'd hope and expect.
How much change is needed?
What's the perspective of these change agents, on how much change is needed? I asked:
To respond adequately to the challenge of sustainable development, how much change is needed?
These people think that radical, far-reaching change is needed in society as a whole, and substantial change is needed in their own organisations.
So the priority - where their skills and talents are most needed - is in the wider system. Are they happy that their own organisations seem to be on track? Not really.
Around 73% of organisational change agents for SD agreed or strongly agreed that they are dissatisfied with the pace and scale of change in their organisation. These people agreed strongly that the pace or scale (and sometimes both) were dissatisfying:
I feel and I see that changes are coming in many parts of my organisation but this process is far too slow.
My organisation has a culture which is generally slow to change—it is large, bureaucratic and hierarchical.
They shared some fascinating perspectives on what it feels like to be a change agent in these circumstances.
A lovely dilemma: we know that change needs to be democratic, and based on others understanding the ‘whys’, to avoid trying another oppressive regime. Experience seems to indicate that this requires patience, but patience in the faith that our mere acts now, however small, may lead to an exponential explosion in the ‘right’ activities, just in time . .. I now try to hold this tension very lightly and not let it distract me from what I’m doing day to day, in the moment. But I can’t pretend to be that successful at it . . .
With a perspective that this is a ‘human community’ not a machine! And that dissatisfaction needs to motivate (not frustration/anger etc.) and shape through positivity (not blind optimism or out-of-touchness) . . . And a personal sense of niche—what’s in my gift, power, influence etc. . . .
On being committed
We already know that our change agents see their work as 'more than just a job'.
How can climate change be just a job! I paraphrase Attenborough whose quote looms over my desk: ‘how could I look my child in the eye and say I knew what was happening to the world and did nothing’?
It is fantastic to feel passionate about my job. Having worked in this area, I now cannot see myself going back to a general management job even if that harms my promotion prospects.
It has to be a passion and something you believe in 100 per cent otherwise you can’t do the job properly, although I’ve had to learn to use the passion in presenting in a way that doesn’t scare the life out of people—in this country we still have a long, long journey.
You need to be really engaged in doing this and believe in it, if you are not the obstacles will be destructive for you personally and will demotivate you.
Does this 'life mission' attitude cause problems for them at work? Actually, only a minority said that it had (17% with their boss, 25% with colleagues). People said things like:
My boss is very ‘realistic’. He’s not big on challenging the current system etc. He has described his purpose as to be a ‘wet blanket’ on a lot of my ideas! At first I found this demotivating, but now I’ve tried to take the view that if I can persuade him of something, I can probably convince the rest of my organisation.
There is a danger that some may see some activities as a crusade, and so are not comfortable with this. Fortunately these people don’t fit the corporate vision and we can refer them back to the business case with the support of our top management. We recognise, reward and extol exemplar performance.
Am I making enough difference?
The responses are fairly evenly matched, with slightly more people satisfied with the difference they are making, but still a large minority disatisfied.
Reflections from some respondents showed a rather grudging or partial sense of satisfaction:
‘Enough of a difference’—well no, but no point in beating myself up and trading on guilt/fear—do that for too long (somewhat disagree).
I would like to make more of a difference, but feel that I’m doing what I can. More support from senior business managers would have much more of a positive impact than they realise. And not just financial support, actually understanding sustainable development and making positive contributions to it (somewhat disagree).
Changing the system
Some respondents expressed a sophisticated appreciation of the emergent and messy nature of system level change.
I think the struggle is needing to be seen to have an answer to a ‘wicked’ question. This need for ‘expertise’ and ‘answers’ may be better served by admitting we don’t know and then working together on potential solutions.
This understanding of change as emergent and systemic is not always easy to explain to colleagues and it may be hard to justify or have a sense of progress when working within this frame.
The change will be continuing, as sustainability is not an end state but a continual journey of improvement against ever increasing public perceptions of what is expected. This is a hard sell within an organisation!
I tend to work with people who have a common view that we are a catalyst for systemic change and our role is to convene and enable others to take innovative action towards that . . . this view is not shared by everyone in the organisation and this is where the tension comes in and the need to translate our work.
We are stuck in a world where mechanistic, linear approaches are foisted onto complex, systemic problems. This is where the tension lies for those involved in bridging this.
- Our change agents believe that a very great deal of change is needed, to get on to the path to sustainability.
- They see change happening in their own organisations, but most of them do not think this change is rapid enough or seeks to go far enough.
- Our change agents do experience tensions. The biggest is the concern about the pace and scale of change in their organisation, and the second biggest is the difficulty of finding solutions which have both a business case and a values case.
- Some change agents find the paradigm of ‘solutions’ unhelpful: they see the change endeavour of which they are a part as systemic and emergent, rather than incremental and linear.
- This in itself can lead to tensions: how to tell if progressis being made, how to keep up colleagues’ morale and how to sell this approachto colleagues.
- Deciding the focus of change efforts and being a person who sees sustainability as ‘more than just a job’ are not a source of significant tension for most change agents, although many experience these tensions from time to time.
Fortunately, our change agents are not daunted by these tensions: they accept them as something which goes with the territory. Keep on keeping on, please!
This blog is based on "What's it like from the inside? The Challenges of Being an Organisational Change Agent for Sustainability" by Penny Walker, published in Greener Management International 57, May 2012.
There's a fascinating account of the results of a much more in-depth piece of research by Christopher Wright, Daniel Nyberg and David Grant of the University of Sydney. They interviewed thirty six people who were "were either in designated positions in major Australian and global corporations as sustainability managers, or were working as external consultants advising about environmental sustainability", which is a similar set of professionals as in my survey. They distilled (or discerned) three distinct but related 'identities' : green change agent, rational manager and committed activist. They also found five narrative 'genres': achievement, transformation, epiphany, sacrifice and adversity. Well worth a close read, especially if you are a 'hippy on the third floor'.
Many strands of work at the moment share a theme of putting in place the conditions for collaboration, and then waiting for something to happen.
I'm working with a colleague to train people from a large state body to pilot a collaborative approach to delivering one of their legal duties. There is pressure - from managers who don't quite get it - to have clear timetables and plans, for action to be delivered. But while you can call on hierarchy and processes to get the job done within your own organisation, you can't tell collaborators what to do. And collaboration relies on genuinely compelling outcomes which are shared by more than one party. You can't magic those out of the air. Our client organisation is in a position to be very clear about its own 'compelling outcomes' on the basis of a technical evidence base and legal duties. Whether there are potential collaborators out there who share any of those compelling outcomes is one of the early questions which needs exploration.
Another strand of work is a multi-stakeholder initiative (it's hard to know how to describe it) where the convenors are using all of the good practice they know to bring people together in a spirit of enquiry and good will, to discover whether there are collaborations waiting to emerge. Participants share a sense that the current system of which they are a part is not sustainable. They may not agree about the bits which are problematic or what a sustainable version would look like. Some of them are more natural bedfellows than others.
I'm in a curious ambiguous role as a participant in this initiative, and a 'friend of the process'. Do I have a role as supporting the convenors? Am I in a privileged observer role, able to spot what's getting in the way and then leaving them to do something about it? Or might I choose to take more ownership and responsibility, doing something about the process myself? (Let alone doing something about the system which we are there to change.)
Metaphors to understand the delicacy
I'm struggling to find metaphors to help explain the difference between project planning, and planning for (and then stewarding) collaborative emergence.
If you've looked after toddlers, you'll know the phenomenon of two children playing quite happily side by side, but with no interaction. No matter how skillfully the grown-up coaxes, if they aren't ready to play together it's not going to happen.
Perhaps it's also like growing particularly temperamental plants, like orchids. Sometimes it just doesn't work out.
Or internet dating. You set criteria and find lots of potential matches. Everything looks promising. And then the magic is either there or it's not. You can't make it happen through an act of will.
Or nursing a sick person: you intervene and you comfort. Sometimes it's enough to just sit next to their bed while their body gets on with doing something about the illness.
Collaboration for system change
All of these possible analogies imply someone outside of the process who is trying to get others to 'play nicely' (except the dating one). This seems unsatisfactory. Collaboration comes because the collaborators both really want to accomplish something which they can't do by themselves. Layer on to that the unknowability of system level change, and sometimes it will take a lot of discussion, exploration and false-starts to find action which people take together which they hypothesise will lead to the right kind of change.
How do you know if you're using your time well?
This question arises in different guises.
In the large state-funded body, where the people running the collaborative experiments are very new to this way of working, there is a need to justify the way they are working to their own line managers, and to the team who are holding the experiment in the middle. At some point in the future, evaluation and the main external 'client' will want to know too.
In the system-level initiative, the hosting body needs to know that funds and staff time are being well used, and all the participants will be making daily choices about whether to be active or whether to sit on the sidelines.
I ran a workshop for a well-known NGO some years ago, helping them to shape their internal monitoring and assessment process so that it would be fit for keeping an eye on complex emergent system change. We had a fascinating day, but it was hard to come to conclusions about KPIs or management information to gather which would be meaningful in helping the team decide what to do, or in helping the organisation decide whether to keep an area of work going. So much would come down to professional judgement, trust and even intuition.
And the question arises for individual change agents, as I have seen over the course of all my work in independent practice: am I doing the right things? is change happening fast enough, far enough, deep enough, wide enough? This is one of the four tensions which were explored in my paper for the EABIS Colloquium in 2008.
Frameworks, checklists, dance moves
In the training, we are using some great frameworks and checklists to help conceptualise the choices and possibilities which stakeholders are faced with, when exploring collaboration.
We have a spectrum of collaborative working, from information sharing to full mainstreaming of the shared compelling outcome in both (all) the collaborating organisations.
We have a two-by-two matrix plotting whether, for a given compelling outcome, the organisation in question can accomplish it alone or can only do it with others; against whether there are any 'others' who want to collaborate to achieve that outcome.
We have guidance on what to think about when setting up a 'holding group' to keep an overview of the collaborative work.
At some point this will come into the public domain and I'll add links.
And we also know, from experience and the writings of others, that sometimes all you can do is put in place the conditions, hold a process lightly and then wait. (Or stumble forward.)
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 was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Peggy Holman's new book, Engaging Emergence. Many readers will know Peggy as one of the authors of The Change Handbook, along with Tom Devane and Steven Cady. I read it in bursts, and every chapter has something comforting and challenging in it. Peggy asks
"What if tensions inspired curiosity? What if we knew how to express our anger, fear, or grief so that it contributed to something better?"
There's so much anger, fear and grief in conversations about ecosystem collapse. I'd love it if that negative emotion could be composted into the fertile soil where new things grow. There are positive reframings of disturbance and disruption.
I relished the permission she gives to let go of the things which bore or scare us, but which we do out of a misplaced sense of duty, and to embrace the aspects of the system which we are really interested in:
"Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service."
I am developing some training on collaboration at the moment, and this exhortation to hold what's important to you, whilst also deeply hearing what's important to other people will become a theme, I'm sure.
An interesting footnote on why I was sent a copy: Peggy wrote the book as a blog, and invited anyone who wanted to post comments. Because I interacted with this, I was offered a copy. Fascinating peer review process and marketing wheeze rolled up together. The blog (now inactive) is here and the list of all those who helped out is here.
A while back, that unstoppable author on CSR Wayne Visser invited me to write an entry on change management for the updated 2010 edition of his A-Z of Corporate Social Responsibility. What a great opportunity! Not having a very clear picture of the readership, I began by justifying the inclusion of the topic.
Some businesses are very good at CSR. Others find it a struggle or are only just beginning. If you want to improve an organisation, then you want to change it. Sometimes the scale of improvement which environmental champions or others want to see is quite large. So far-reaching organisational change may be desired.
What do we know about how organisations change, and how organisational change can be managed - or catalysed and steered?
The article goes on to contrast ideas about planned organisational change with perspectives which see change as an emergent phenomenon. It also looks at what changes, when an organisation changes, drawing on Schein's three levels of culture.
And as you'd expect, there are signposts to some practical advice.
What did I miss?
If I'm asked to do an update for a future edition, what changes should I make to the article?
You can buy a copy here (NB Amazon don't seem to be able to distinguish this 2010 edition from the previous edition).
I've also posted a slide show which develops some of these thoughts, which you can reach via this blog entry.
There's a typical pattern for sustainability change agents: enthusiastic spotting of an opportunity to change (a solution) followed by a flurry of activity and then the obstables begin to show themselves. Then it can go two ways:
reflecting on the 'stuckness', exploring it and finding a way beyond it,
Actually, you need to see the obstacles clearly to be able to deal with them, but that doesn't stop people feeling downhearted if they'd set out imagining no obstacles at all!
Theories for the perplexed
I find it reassuring when a bit of theory (or framework, model, checklist) explains that the low points are predictable, expected and indeed part of the journey.
And theories can also help us make sense of a complex reality, find the patterns in chaos, see "what's really going on here" and understand our unconscious assumptions. If we bring them to conscious attention, we can make choices about doing things differently. Our assumptions might be about organisations (what they are, how they work, what's amenable to change), or people (how to interact respectfully whilst intending things to change) or sustainability (what might the journey look like, how you know you're going in the right direction).
So I've assembled some bits of theory which I find particularly useful and popped them in a slide show here:
View more presentations from PennyWalker
There should be some notes pages with more explanation and references, but I haven't managed to get Slide Share to show these yet. So here's a pdf with the notes. This is a presentation I give at the fabulous Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business course, developed and run by CPSL and Forum for the Future.
Ideas into action
So theories are all very well, but what might it mean for your situation? I love to help people work out what their next steps might be, and a good way of doing this has proved to be the one-day Change Management for Sustainable Development workshop I developed and run with the IEMA.
We've got one in London on May 25th. So why not come along and we can help each other use some practical theories to make more progress? You can book here.
It's the time of year for clearing out the cupboards and taking all the cushions off the sofa to sweep out the composting satsuma peel. So I've been through my email inbox dealing with things. And there - among the discarded invitations to really interesting meetings and unanswered requests for advice on things I just didn't know enough about to reply rapidly - was a jewel, waiting to be rediscovered. I get Michael Neill's weekly coaching newsletter, ever since I went on a two-day coaching magic course which he ran in conjunction with Kaizen Training. Each Monday morning week there's an anecdote or exercise and they help me understand better how to coach, consult to clients or facilitate groups. Of course there are also notifications of the courses he's running or books you can buy, but it's easy to ignore that stuff if you're not in the market for it. (From time to time I get a bit exasperated with the recurring theme of money, earnings, finances and feeling rich. That's not why I'm interested in coaching. I ignore those bits too.)
A Conceptual Jewel
The jewel was one of Michael's conceptual frameworks. I'd kept it in my inbox so that I'd remember to blog about it at some point. That point is now.
It's the Four Quadrants of Creation, and it's a way of understanding what might be getting in the way of you achieving or creating something.
I think this is a great framework to have in a coaching toolkit, and I wonder if it can also be used with a team - for example a transition group, or a sustainability team within a larger organisation, or a consultant team reflecting on a particular 'stuckness' with a client?
Think of something you have thus far failed to achieve or create...
Now answer this question:
Is it because you couldn't, you didn't really want to, or both?
He goes on to talk about the twin importance of commitment and competence.
"Commitment is your "want to" - the amount of desire and willingness you bring to your project or creation. Competence is your "how to" - the amount of skill and capability you are currently able to harness."
Sorry about the poor image quality - it's better in the original.
You can probably see straight away how this can be used in a coaching situation: the coachee can consider where their espoused goal is in this matrix, and whether it's insufficient competence or weak commitment which is holding them back.
What's holding you back?
One of my coaching clients has been using a metaphor of baking a cake, for achieving a particular goal. At the moment, something is getting in the way of moving forward, and it is as if the cake batter is being stirred endlessly. It could be that more stirring is what's needed - when the mix is ready for the oven, it will be obvious. Or perhaps there is a reluctance to let go of the comfortable and known act of stirring, and take the irreversible step of putting the potential cake into the test of the fiery furnace.
Only the client can know this, but the framework can help them to discover 'what is' and work with that.
The framework with a team
Could this framework be used to help a team reflect on its progress towards a goal? There would need to be a high degree of trust in the group for it to be used successfully: who wants to tell a colleague about their own lack of competence, or question another person's commitment to a team goal? A prior agreement not to use self-disclosed low levels of competence or commitment against each other later would be needed. Self-disclosure would need to go before reflection on the team as a whole.
In some situations, it would be very helpful to have a framework for understanding what competence is needed for the task. For example, this framework is about sustainability leadership. A structure like a spectrum, with attitudes to the goal marked on it, may also help to give permission to people to be honest about their level of commitment. The horizontal dimension from the 'who can help me' matrix is a possible tool to use for this, if some additional options are added in between the extremes.
Dotting along the scale would form a whole-group picture of where people stand, which can then be used to focus discussion on the team's commitment and what would increase it (or what alternative goal would elicit high commitment).
The matrix could also be used as part of prioritising a team's work - something which will surely be more fraught as cuts make themselves felt in the public sector here in the UK.
Find out what you are really committed to
Some goals enthuse and inspire us, generating remarkable levels of passion and energy and bringing out the best in us. Others feel more like burdens or accusations, staring at us sulkily from the teetering pile of unread journals or the magic inbox which can apparently hold an infinite number of low priority emails.
Peggy Holman, in Engaging Emergence (fantastic book which I keep recommending to people and will blog about properly one day), talks about "taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service". If you move towards the things which you really care about, you are providing your best gift to the overall endeavour. You don't have to do it all, and you don't have to do the things you think you should do - just the things you love to do. This strategic selfishness is echoed in Michael Neill's thoughts about commitment:
"...check to see if this really is your project or if it's someone else's dream placed in your hands. If you decide to fully own it, notice any thoughts about why you can't or shouldn't really allow yourself to want this for yourself. Authentic desire doesn't need to be created - simply uncovered, one limiting belief at a time, and given space to breathe and to grow."
Every day in every way I'm getting better and better. But how would we know? My latest 'engaging people' column looks at different ways of assessing sustainability leaders: our strengths and our areas to build on. First published in 'the environmentalist' , IEMA's magazine.
You may also be interested in this survey, which explores your experiences of being a "sustainable development change agent" trying to transform an organisation. The survey is part of my research for a forthcoming chapter in a book on organisational change and sustainability, due to be published by Greenleaf in 2011.
NB the survey is now closed.
Update, Dec 2010
I have posted a survey for organisational change agents, as part of my research for a forthcoming chapter in a book on organisational change and sustainability, published by Greenleaf in 2012. Please note that the survey is now closed. The paper can also be accessed here.
If you want to dive into the detail, here is a pdf of the full responses.
Thanks for collaborating!
Distilling practical experience and really helpful theory, the 2006 Change Management for Sustainable Development practitioner is my modest contribution to helping sustainability professionals harness the insights from organisational development, change mangement and behaviour change. It also features blank spaces for you to make your own notes, so it's as much like a conversation as I could make a paper-based book. And there are downloadable worksheets on IEMA's website, it you want to run workshop sessions using some of the exercises.
I'm delighted that people have found it helpful, and that - for example - it's been drawn on in subsequent IEMA practitioner guides like this one on climate change.
One of the things we do at the one-day Change Management training workshop is to look through a decision tree (aka flow chart) to see which approach to change might be most effective, given the starting point of each person on the course. Questions to ask yourself include:
- what's my mandate?
- what is the stated position of my senior team / Board, and do they know what they've signed up to?
- how much of an appetite is there amongst my colleagues?
The next workshop is on 20th July in Leeds - why not book to join us?
Growing Communities is an inspiring social enterprise which grows and trades organic, seasonal fruit and veg in Hackney, North London. Transparency alert: I'm the chair of the Board. It has three core activities:
- growing food, mostly salads, in its urban market gardens. The salad bags and other produce are sold through its own outlets, which are...
- ...a weekly organic 'veg box' scheme, with food going to around 3,000 people...
- ...and the UK's first weekly organic Farmers' Market.
The organisation was first set up by a small group of friends and neighbours paying in advance for produce to be produced on a single farm: a classic community supported agriculture scheme. Later, grant funding from sources like the National Lottery, the Esme Fairburn Foundation and the Bridge House Estates Trust provided the capital for starting up new initiatives. Hats off to all of them!
Trading fruit and veg through the box scheme, and an entrepreneurial can-do attitude meant that Growing Communities could, after a short time, move to being self-funding. This freedom enables it to be nimble and to change rapidly as it learns about how to make this alternative local food system work. Its work has always coupled a radical and strategic vision, with a deeply practical approach. Standing on its own two feet financially is a value as well as a tactic. It demonstrates to customers, members, suppliers and the wider world, that an alternative food system can work even in the current context.
It also makes growth possible - bootstrapping rather than dependent on grant funding and subsidies.
But what does growth mean for an alternative enterprise like Growing Communities?
Its principles and structure (its box-scheme customers are voting members who attend AGMs in surprisingly large numbers and elect the Board a.k.a. 'Management Committee') mean that it is community-led. So a growth model which involves moving into a new area and opening up a mirror image of the Hackney original isn't good enough. What about simply opening more outlets in Hackney, and growing the local customer base? Yes, Growing Communities has done some of that, and intends to do more, with its satellite pick-up points for the weekly veg bags. The things limiting the growth of the Farmers' Market include limitations on the space where it is held, limits on the amount of produce small farmers and growers can grow, and a dearth of small producers who fit the exacting criteria: e.g. local, organic, and producers / growers who sell their own produce, not someone else's.
Growing Communities wants to keep the community-led, local value while providing a stable and reliable market for sustainably-produced food which will enable more growers to build strong (albeit small) businesses.
The growth model also needs to be very lean - Growing Communities can't provide capital funding or flashy materials, and it can't expect fat franchise fees from the new organisations - which, like Growing Communities, will be social enterprises or some other form of not-for-profit structure. And because every community is different, an emergent learning approach makes sense.
Mentoring and action learning model
So it's adopted a growth strategy which involves closely supporting other organisations which want to set up their own version of the Growing Communities model. The first few 'start ups' will be intensively supported with workshops, training, resources (things like copies of the ordering system, model contracts) and hands-on problem solving. As the 'start ups' get going, their learning and experience will be captured in a series of on-line briefings, which will then be available to the next tranche of start-ups. There will also be on-line discussions, so everyone can learn from each other.
This programme is being funded partly from the organisation's own resources, and partly by UnLtd, the social entrepreneur's organisation, which has provided some funding already. As it progresses, the idea is that successful start-ups will also help to fund the programme of live support and detailed guidance materials, and deliver parts of it.
If you're interested in setting up a transformational pioneering food organisation, then check out the start up website here.
If you're interested in what it means for a sustainable organisation to grow, without being beholden to short-termist shareholders, being in debt to a bank or being dependent on grant funding, then keep an eye on Growing Communities.
Was the shut down of air travel a right pain for you and your organisation? Now that the ash has settled, there's a great opportunity for you to use the recent disruption to discuss sustainable development with your colleagues. [And as if to prove the point that it's a good idea to be prepared, it's back - as of 08.52 @BST 4th May 2010.]
Whichever way you look at it, a low-carbon economy (whether forced on us by peak oil or chosen as a planned way of mitigating climate change) will mean a drastic reduction in cheap air travel. Your colleagues may feel this is too far off, or too fanciful, to plan for. But the shut down actually happened. So it's a great way in to discussions you might not have been able to have before April 2010.
Here are 11 questions to structure a discussion about your organisation's dependence on air transport - and how you can reduce it over the long term.
- What was disrupted?
- What was enhanced?
- What did we do differently, that worked really well?
- What did we do differently, that was a right pain?
- What contingencies did we have in place, or put in place, in case the shut-down had lasted for twice as long?
- Or ten times as long?
- What would we have done if we'd had a week's notice?
- What would we have done if we'd had a month's notice?
- What would we have done if we'd had five year's notice?
- What will we keep doing differently anyway, because it worked better?
- What will we build into our medium and long term planning, to help us be ahead of the game when air travel again becomes more expensive and less available?
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!
We have three dates in the diary for this one-day workshop, which I've been running since 2005. The day is very interactive, with everyone sharing a specific sustainability challenge which they are working on, and using various frameworks and exercises to explore and understand the challenge better.
During the workshop, people
- Hear about some theory on organisational change and approaches to change, including a scale of strategic engagement, visioning, identifying key players, choosing a change strategy, identifying barriers to change and planning first steps.
- Apply this to their own organisational sustainability challenge.
- Hear from others in a similar situation, discuss common challenges and discovering sources of further information and support.
As you’d expect, the contents have evolved since I ran the first one. But the approach is still one of making selected bits of change theory as accessible as possible to people, and giving them time to work on their own particular situation during the workshop. And everyone still gets a free copy of the workbook, so they can carry on making their own notes and using plenty more exercises and frameworks at their own pace.
If you'd like to come along, you can book through IEMA's website.
London: 28th April 2010
Leeds: 20th July 2010
Newcastle upon Tyne: 12th October 2010