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?
When you think about the changes you want to bring about, to make your organisation or sector more sustainable, what do you see changing? Do you have blind spots about where change might happen, and how deep or how obvious it will be?
Edgar Schein’s Three Levels of Culture model is a great way of understanding what might change, as an organisation or other entity changes. It’s useful to think very widely about the kinds of things that might change – or need to change – to get us on track for sustainable development.
Sustainability initiatives! Low-carbon innovation; gender equality; getting rid of single-use plastics; well-being.... In-house sustainability change makers and the consultants who help them are forever devising and launching initiatives and campaigns to get colleagues to do things differently. Sometimes colleagues take them up whole-heartedly and they develop a life of their own. Sometimes you get feeling people are sighing and rolling their eyes, waiting for it to fade away. What makes the difference?
If you want sustainability to move from being a nice-to-have, to being a must-have, at some point you will need to show that there’s a business case for it: that your organisation will meet its core mission better, faster, cheaper by paying good attention to sustainability than by ignoring it.
What does the business case look like in your organisation?
Our opportunities to change things can come from unexpected directions. A new CEO who wants to shake things up. A sudden upsurge of public enthusiasm for naked shampoo bars or reusable cups. A cost-cutting drive.
How can you make the most of these changes from elsewhere, and surf them expertly to get things moving in a sustainable direction?
The Beast from the East has blanketed much of the UK with its beautiful sparkles, covering up roads, railways lines and in some cases front doors.
But the snow has also revealed things that aren’t usually seen: particulate pollution, uninsulated roofs, space which could be reclaimed from traffic for pedestrians and cyclists, and the impoverished nature of our soil.
Are you an environment or sustainability specialist, working to help your organisation step up to its role in bringing about a sustainable future? Want to make more of an impact? I want you to as well! Which is why I was so pleased when IEMA invited me to write a second edition of Change Management for Sustainable Development.
And when one of our peer readers said "it's like having a coach in your pocket", I was really happy, because that's exactly what I wanted it to be.
Just a week to go until the second ‘still’ conversation. Here’s what some people thought of the first one
“Thank you, Penny, it was a really powerful event you created a wonderful opportunity to reflect, listen, think and learn. A really enriching experience and I would encourage any of my network in the sustainability community to consider signing up for one or more of your other forthcoming 'still' conversations. A very worthwhile investment for both senior managers or practitioner level.” Thomas Enright, former Head of CSR, Affinity Water
“Thank you for your generosity, kindness and skill in making such a trusting space possible.” Kath Dalmeny, CEO, Sustain
“Penny has created a unique space to reflect and share experiences. The carefully facilitated session provided new insights and a real sense of shared purpose with the other attendees.” Matt Loose, Director, SustainAbility
There’s just one space left for next Wednesday, 12th April. To find out more and book that place, click here. The third 'still' conversation in this season is about getting sustainability into your organisation's strategy, and will be on 10th May.
To be kept informed about future ‘still’ conversations, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
Images: David Caines
I'm very excited about this season of workshops that I'm piloting - still conversations.
It's a vision I've had for a while, and it's begun to take shape over the last six months.
The groups will be small - a maximum of ten people in each conversation. The atmosphere will be easeful, open, creative. People will learn from each other and from the opportunity to think aloud with others who understand what it's like to grapple with sustainability - trying to move fast enough while bringing others with you; finding the authentic way to be truthful and motivating.
To begin with, I'm offering three conversations on different topics and people can come to one, two or all three. The themes are:
- personal resilience for sustainability leaders - sold out. If you would like to added to a waiting list, or to be notified if this session runs again, please email email@example.com.
- where next with my sustainability strategy
- getting sustainability into my organisation's strategy
It's an experiment, so the price is deliberately low with discounts (for multiple bookings, self-funded people, people who took part in the survey earlier in the year, IEMA members). So it's just £100 plus VAT for a single session (discount if you book more than one). And I'll be looking for feedback on how to make them as useful as possible for people.
It's a chance to take time out and be still. Think aloud with other sustainability leaders.
I've emailed and sent personal invitations to people via LinkedIn, and the feedback is that now, more than ever, those who don't already have these kind of supportive professional-yet-personal networks in place are keen to get involved. The Personal Resilience theme is definitely striking a chord.
Find out more and make a booking here.
I'm excited about ideas for peer learning workshops that have been bubbling away in my head and are beginning to take shape.
Focused, coachy, peer learning
I want to bring together sustainability people of various kinds, to be able to talk with each other about their challenges and ideas in a more expansive and easeful way than a conference allows.
People really benefit from being able to think aloud in coaching conversations. I've seen the transformations that can happen when supportive challenge prompts a new way of looking at things.
We also get so much from comparing our own experiences with peers: finding the common threads in individual contexts, exploring ideas about ways forward.
I’d like to combine these things by making the peer learning available in smaller groups and smaller chunks, where the atmosphere is more like coaching.
What's the idea?
The idea is to run half-day workshops, with between 6 and 10 people at each event. The intention is that they are safe and supporting spaces, where people can talk freely. We'll meet in spaces that are relaxed, creative, private, energising and feel good to be in. (More comfortable than the stone steps in the picture.)
Each workshop would have a theme, to help focus the conversations and make sure people who come along have enough in common for those conversations to be highly productive.
I'd run a few, on different themes, and people can come to one, some or all of them. They don't have to come to them all, so the mix of people will be different for each workshop.
I'd charge fees, probably tiered pricing so that it's affordable for individuals and smaller not-for-profits, but commercial prices for bigger and for-profit organisations.
The content of each workshop will come from the participants, rather than me: my role is to facilitate the conversations, rather than to teach or train people.
Choices, dilemmas, testing
When I've tested this idea with a few people, many have said that the success of the workshops will depend on who else is there: people with experience, insight, credibility. People they feel able to trust, before they commit to booking. I think this is useful feedback.
On the other hand, I'm unsure about the best way to ensure this. Is it enough to include a description of "who these workshops are for" and leave it to people to decide for themselves? Or should I set up an application process of some kind: asking people who apply to include a short explanation of who they are, what their role and experience is, and why they want to come along.
If I set up an 'application' process, will that be off-putting to the naturally modest? Too cumbersome? Adding extra steps (apply, wait, get place confirmed, then pay...) feels risky: at each step, the pool of likely participants will get smaller. Will this make the workshops unviable? Who am I to choose, anyway?
Another option is to make the workshops 'by invitation' with people having the option of requesting an invitation for their friends, peers, colleagues - or even themselves. This is what I'm leaning towards at the moment, based on gut feel.
Will this increase people's confidence in the workshops - that not just anyone gets a place, their peers will provide quality reflections and be people worth meeting? Will it make those people who do get an invitation feel special, better about themselves?
And will I really turn down anyone who asks for an invitation? What will they feel?
I've set up a survey to gather views on this, as well as on the topics that will be most interesting to people. Please let me know here where's there a short survey. Discounts and prizes available!
How it feels to experiment
I'm not a natural entrepreneur. Some people love to experiment and learn from failure. Fail faster. Fail cheaper. Intellectually I'm committed to experimenting with these workshops: testing out ideas about formats, marketing, pricing, venues, topic focus vs emergence, length, the amount of 'taught' content vs 'created' content and so on.
Emotionally: not so much. I want to get everything right before I start (which is why it's taken me about six months to even get to this stage). I'm getting great support from lots of people, and boy do I need it. Even sitting here, I can feel the prickly, clammy, cold physical manifestations of the fear of failure.
I need to move through the fear and into the phase of actually running some test workshops. I know they'll be great. I can see the smiles, feel the warmth, visualise the kind of room we're meeting in and the I already have the design and process clear. I have a shelf of simple but beautiful props in my office. I am 100% confident about the events themselves, it's the communications and administration of the marketing that freaks me out.
Learning from the learning
So already I'm learning. About myself, about what people say they need, about how venues can be welcoming or off-putting, about how generous people are with their time and feedback.
For over fifteen years, InterAct Networks worked to put stakeholder and public engagement at the heart of public sector decision-making, especially through focusing on capacity-building in the UK public sector. This work - through training and other ways of helping people learn, and through helping clients thinks about structures, policies and organisational change - helped organisations get better at strategically engaging with their stakeholders to understand their needs and preferences, get better informed, collaboratively design solutions and put them into practice. Much of that work has been with the Environment Agency, running the largest capacity-building programme of its kind.
InterAct Networks was registered as a Limited Liability Partnership in February 2002.
Founding partners Jeff Bishop, Lindsey Colbourne, Richard Harris and Lynn Wetenhall established InterAct Networks to support the development of 'local facilitator networks' of people wanting to develop facilitation skills from a range of organisations in a locality.
These geographically based networks enabled cross organisational learning and support. Networks were established across the UK, ranging from the Highlands and Islands to Surrey, Gwynedd to Gloucestershire. InterAct Networks provided the initial facilitation training to the networks, and supported them in establishing ongoing learning platforms. We also helped to network the networks, sharing resources and insights across the UK. Although some networks (e.g. Gwynedd) continue today, others found the lack of a 'lead' organisation meant that the network eventually lost direction.
In 2006, following a review of the effectiveness of the geographical networks, InterAct Networks began working with clients to build their organisational capacity to engage with stakeholders (including communities and the public) in decision making. This work included designing and delivering training (and other learning interventions), as well as setting up and supporting internal networks of engagement mentors and facilitators. We have since worked with the Countryside Council for Wales, the UK Sustainable Development Commission, Defra, DECC (via Sciencewise-ERC see p10), Natural England and primarily the Environment Agency in England and Wales.
Through our work with these organisations InterAct Networks led the field in:
tools and materials
new forms of organisational learning.
After Richard and Jeff left, Penny Walker joined Lindsey and Lynn as a partner in 2011, and InterAct Networks became limited company in 2012. In 2014, Lynn Wetenhall retired as a Director.
Some insights into building organisational capacity
Through our work with clients, especially the Environment Agency, we have learnt a lot about what works if you want to build an organisation's capacity to engage stakeholders and to collaborate. There is, of course, much more than can be summarised here. Here are just five key insights:
- Tailor the intervention to the part of the organisation you are working with.
- For strategic, conceptual 'content', classroom training can rarely do more than raise awareness.
- Use trainers who are practitioners.
- Begin with the change you want to see.
- Learning interventions are only a small part of building capacity.
Tailor the intervention
An organisation which wants to improve its engagement with stakeholders and the public in the development and delivery of public policy needs capacity at organisational, team and individual levels.
This diagram, originated by Jeff Bishop, shows a cross-organisational framework, helping you to understand the levels and their roles (vision and direction; process management; delivery). If capacity building remains in the process management and delivery zones, stakeholder and public engagement will be limited to pockets of good practice.
Classroom training will raise awareness of tools
There are half a dozen brilliant tools, frameworks and concepts which are enormously helpful in planning and delivering stakeholder and public engagement. Classroom training (and online self-guided learning) can do the job of raising awareness of these. But translating knowledge into lived practice - which is the goal - needs ongoing on-the-job interventions like mentoring, team learning or action learning sets. Modelling by someone who knows how to use the tools, support in using them - however inexpertly at first - and reinforcement of their usefulness. Reflection on how they were used and the impact they had.
Use trainers who are practitioners
People who are experienced and skillful in planning and delivering stakeholder and public engagement, and who are also experienced and skillful in designing and delivering learning interventions, make absolutely the best capacity-builders. They have credibility and a wealth of examples, they understand why the frameworks or skills which are being taught are so powerful. They understand from practice how they can be flexed and when it's a bad idea to move away from the ideal. We were enormously privileged to have a great team of practitioner-trainers to work with as part of the wider InterAct Networks family.
Begin with the change you want to see
The way to identify the "learning intervention" needed, is to begin by asking "what does the organisation need to do differently, or more of, to achieve its goals?", focusing on whatever the key challenge is that the capacity building needs to address. Once that is clear (and it may take a 'commissioning group' or quite a lot of participative research to answer that question), ask "what do (which) people need to do differently, or more of?". Having identified a target group of people, and the improvements they need to make, ask "what do these people need to learn (knowledge, skills) in order to make those improvements?". At this stage, it's also useful to ask what else they need to help them make the improvements (permission, budget, resources, changes to policies etc). Finally, ask "what are the most effective learning interventions to build that knowledge and those skills for these people?". Classroom training is only one solution, and often not the best one.
Learning interventions are (only) part of the story
Sometimes the capacity that needs building is skills and knowledge - things you can learn. So learning interventions (training, coaching, mentoring etc) are appropriate responses. Sometimes the capacity "gap" is about incentives, policies, processes or less tangible cultural things. In which case other interventions will be needed. The change journey needs exquisite awareness of what 'good' looks like, what people are doing and the impact it's having, what the progress and stuckness is. Being able to share observations and insights as a team (made up of both clients and consultants) is invaluable.
The most useful concepts and frameworks
Over the years, some concepts and frameworks emerged as the most useful in helping people to see stakeholder engagement, collaboration and participation in a new light and turn that enlightenment into a practical approach.
I've blogged about some of these elsewhere on this site: follow the links.
- What's up for grabs? What's fixed, open or negotiable.
- Asking questions in order to uncover latent consensus - the PIN concept.
- How much engagement? Depending on the context for your decision, project or programme, different intensities of engagement are appropriate. This tool helps you decide.
- Is collaboration appropriate for this desired outcome? This matrix takes the 'outcome' that you want to achieve as a starting point, and helps you see whether collaborating with others will help you achieve it.
- Engagement aims: transmit, receive and collaborate. Sometimes known as the Public Engagement Triangle, this way of understanding "engagement aims" was developed originally by Lindsey Colbourne as part of her work with the Sciencewise-ERC, for the Science for All Follow Up Group.
- Who shall we engage and how intensely? (stakeholder identification and mapping)
Three-day facilitation training
As part of this wider suite of strategic and skills-based capacity building, InterAct Networks ran dozens of three-day facilitation skills training courses and helped the Environment Agency to set up an internal facilitator network so that quasi-third parties can facilitate meetings as part of public and stakeholder engagement. The facilitator network often works with external independent facilitators, contracted by the Environment Agency for bigger, more complex or higher-conflict work. This facilitation course is now under the stewardship of 3KQ.
More reports and resources
Here are some other reports and resources developed by the InterAct Networks team, sometimes while wearing other hats.
Evaluation of the use of Working with Others - Building Trust for the Shaldon Flood Risk Project, Straw E. and Colbourne, L., March 2009.
Departmental Dialogue Index - developed by Lindsey Colbourne for Sciencewise.
Doing an organisational stocktake.
Organisational Learning and Change for Public Engagement, Colbourne, L., 2010, for NCCPE and The Science for All group, as part of The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)’ Science and Society programme.
Mainstreaming collaboration with communities and stakeholders for FCERM, Colbourne, L., 2009 for Defra and the Environment Agency.
Thank you for a wonderful ride
In 2015, Lindsey and Penny decided to close the company, in order to pursue other interests. Lindsey's amazing art work can be seen here. Penny continues to help clients get better at stakeholder engagement, including through being an Associate of 3KQ, which has taken ownership of the core facilitation training course that InterAct Networks developed and has honed over the years. The Environment Agency continues to espouse its "Working with Others" approach, with great guidance and passion from Dr. Cath Brooks and others. Colleagues and collaborators in the work with the Environment Agency included Involve and Collingwood Environmental Planning, as well as Helena Poldervaart who led on a range of Effective Conversations courses. We hope that we have left a legacy of hundreds of people who understand and are committed to asking great questions and listening really well to the communities and interests they serve, for the good of us all.
Organisational culture. Where to begin? Like behaviour change and values, it's one of those phenomena of human experience that promises to unlock sustainability if you can only work out how to harness it, but tantalises by just not being reducible to simple rules or mechanistic predictions.
The canny editorial team over at The Environmentalist invited me to write a two-part feature to introduce IEMA members to this scotch mist, and I love a challenge like that. Even though I know the result will be partial and full of holes, I'd love to help people begin to navigate this treacherous territory with a few useful landmarks.
The research and planning process for the article was fun too, once I'd decided to focus right down on something manageable. (After all, this was for a 1,400 word feature, not a thesis.)
I chose to re-read Edgar Schein's classic Organizational Culture and Leadership. The resulting mind map of notes is two A4 sheets of close tiny handwriting. I also finally got round to properly reading William Bridges' Character of Organisations, which I was introduced to by Lindsey Colbourne (I still have your copy Lindsey!) when she was helping Sciencewise think about designing approaches to public dialogue which match the organisational cultures found in Whitehall Departments and government agencies. Her insightful background research report on the "Departmental Dialogue Index" is here and the summary paper containing the diagnostic tool is here.
Schein's book is wonderful for its stories. I enjoyed being alongside him as a reader, as he gradually realises how little he understands the organisations he is exploring. He opens himself up to not knowing, thereby allowing himself to hear the new (more accurate) interpretations of the behaviours and artefacts. There's something of the anthropologist about him, understanding organisations by being present in them as a participant observer.
Bridges' approach starts from a framework more commonly used to understand the individual - the MBTI's contrasting pairs of judging / perceiving; sensing / intuition; extraversion / introversion; thinking / feeling. He takes this and looks at how it might manifest in organisations.
This is arguably a less intellectually rigorous approach than Schein's. I definitely find myself drawn to the open-endedness and ambiguity of the anthropologist. But there is also something attractively pragmatic in Bridges' work. And the book contains a questionnaire that readers can use to assess an organisation - good for people (and organisations) which like applied theory.
Sharing TUI Travel's journey
Many thanks to Rosie Bristow and Sarah Holloway who took the time to talk to me about how understanding organisational culture within TUI Travel helped them to tailor their sustainability work to be more effective. As well as reading about this in my article, you can see the enthusiastic buy-in they've generated here.
There are some typical challenges in inter-organisational collaboration which it's as well to be ready for. I'll summarise them here, and then blog in more detail about each one over the coming weeks.
- it isn't easy
- decisions are shared
- it depends on great relationships
- it requires high-quality internal working too
- it's a marathon not a sprint
- success may look different from what you expected
These six characteristics emerged from research I carried out with experienced collaborators from the Environment Agency, when putting together some training for their managers on how to develop and support a team culture which supports collaboration. This training was developed and delivered with InterAct Networks (including Lynn Wetenhall) and a small internal client team, and some of Working Collaboratively also draws on this work.
Here's a little about our first characteristic - it isn't easy.
It isn't easy
This may sound a little trite, but there is an important insight here: you choose to collaborate (rather than work alone) when the problem you want to solve or the outcome you want to achieve is something that you can't tackle alone. Why can't you tackle it alone? Most likely because it is complex, systemic, entrenched, wicked, long-standing. And all of those things make it hard.
So you are using an inherently difficult approach (collaboration - see the other five characteristics for what makes it inherently hard) to tackle a hard situation.
Which means: if you are finding it hard, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are doing it wrong!
I say this so you can find comfort in knowing that the hardness is a feature of the landscape, to be expected. Don't beat yourself (or your colleagues, or your collaborators) up.
Instead, discuss the hardness. "Hey team, this is proving hard! What do we need to keep doing, and what do we need to do differently, in the face of the difficulties?". Knowing that it's OK to have this conversation - because the hardness is inherent rather than anyone's fault - will free you up to find new ways to address things or the strength to continue with the things you are already doing.
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.
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.