Carousel in action

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Still...... a new season of workshops for spring

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:

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.  

Clean energy, thriving cities: Sustainable Development Goals #5

Qiciao and Qixi, a pair of giant panda twins, inspect a flag to represent Goal 7, Affordable and Clean Energy, raised at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Mr. Yuan Tao and Ms. Yan Lu

Qiciao and Qixi, a pair of giant panda twins, inspect a flag to represent Goal 7, Affordable and Clean Energy, raised at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Mr. Yuan Tao and Ms. Yan Lu

Bringing affordable off-grid renewables to remote communities in developing countries; using cutting-edge data analysis to save money and carbon in modern buildings; micro-managing students' energy use to balance the national grid: some of the brilliant things that are featured in the latest of my series on how businesses are helping contribute to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals

This article in The Environmentalist also looks at making cities more sustainable: better buildings, convenient and reliable public transport and new technology which helps blind and partially sighted people navigate and enjoy the neighbourhood.

You can read it online here (IEMA login or subscription, or take a free trial) or there's a pdf version here.

What do we need now, from sustainability leaders?

Belaying. Aimee Custis Photography,  flickr .

Belaying. Aimee Custis Photography, flickr.

When I got the news about the US Presidential election result, I went through a lot emotions that I'm still processing.

One that may have been shared by those of you who are looked to for leadership - in ways big or small - was uncertainty about what to say to people who are wanting guidance.

I had to think about this pretty quickly, as I'd been asked present on leadership in the closing session of a four-day workshop on sustainable business.

So what now?

What kind of leadership do we want, what kind of leaders do we need to be, when the going gets really tough?  For me, it boils down to resilience and responsibility.


It will be tough. There will be defeats and failures.  People will try to stop the things we are working for.  For some of us the challenges will be unbearably hard.  For some of us they already are.  (I know I speak from a position of privilege as a white, well-educated, able-bodied, straight, comparatively wealthy person from a Christian cultural background - I don't know I'm born.)

Part of what defines stepping up to lead - wherever we find ourselves - is that we are resilient and find ways to continue the work, especially when it is tough.

This doesn't mean that we can't take time out - rest, recharge, recuperate, get some R&R - these things are part of keeping ourselves resilient.

As Rabbi Tarfon said:

It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.


Knowing isn't enough.  We need to take responsibility.  Find the intersection between what we think is needed and what we are able to do, and step into that space.  If you are there already, thank you.

If you are able to step up, thank you.

What if you're not sure, yet, what is in that intersection?  Then keep doing the good you were already doing, and when you are sure you can step up. You're unlikely to be doing harm in the meantime.

Collaborate and support

Not all of us need to be leaders all the time.  Being a great supporter is an essential job too.  The climber relies on the woman belaying, in the picture. If the work you are doing is to enable and empower others to lead, thank you.

The event

The workshop was part of the 2016 Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Value Chains, part of the suite of brilliant executive education on sustainability offered by the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership.  Thanks team for asking me along!  The full slide set I used is here.

Campaigners, community groups, activists and faith groups - run your business meetings better so you can get on with the important stuff!

Five minute meeting makeover.

If you're involved in a local group - campaigners, activists, community action, faith group - there will be some really important things you want to achieve in the world.  And you'll have some kind of team, committee, council or similar organising the activities behind the scenes.  How are those meetings?  Clear, engaging, effective?  Or dull, interminable, frustrating, repetitive?

I've led a couple of two-hour training sessions this year for groups on how to run meetings which make clear decisions that stick.  So that they can spend time on doing the stuff that really matters.

Here are the handouts from the workshop I ran in mid November.  

If you think your group would benefit, get in touch to see what I can do to help you. 

Peer learning workshops - some emerging ideas

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.

Sweet like chocolate - protecting Earth's life support systems

In the fourth of my series on business and the Sustainable Development Goals, I found out about how Nestle and Mondelez are working to secure their long-term supply of cocoa,  about how companies are calling for greater action on carbon emissions and how the pension fund of England's environment regulator is divesting from fossil fuels.  This part of the series looks at Goal 13 Climate Action and Goal 15 Life on Land.

You can see the article over at The Environmentalist's website here.  Login if you are a subscriber or an IEMA member, or register for a free trial.  If that's not for you, the pdf is here.

Explorer Inge Solheim raised a flag representing Goal 13, Climate Action, in the community closest to the North Pole, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Image c/o  Global Goals media centre .

Explorer Inge Solheim raised a flag representing Goal 13, Climate Action, in the community closest to the North Pole, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Image c/o Global Goals media centre.

She is Sustainable - sustaining the sustainers

Vertically, horizontally or circularly ambitious? Mothering or child-free, by choice or randomness? Urban or rural? Partnered for life or a free agent? Gay or straight or something else? Employed, entrepreneur or freelance?

Women who work in sustainability are all these things and more. 

She is Sustainable was invented by five UK-based sustainability women (Becky Willis, Solitaire Townsend, Amy Mount, Hannah Hislop and Melissa Miners) who thought

Every woman makes decisions about her career, her ambitions and her family. As five women who have shared their learnings, successes and failures, we know one thing for sure – there’s a lot we can learn from each other.
We want to take time out to talk about women and changing the world. Not about politics, but about personal lives and choices.
That’s why we organised She Is Sustainable: London in February 2016, a two-day gathering for women working in sustainability, allowing women to share their stories and take part in discussion sessions on all aspects of women’s work and life.

She is Sustainable spawns sprogs

Becky and the rest of the gang weren't intending or expecting that SiS would become a thing, but it has. There have been SiSs in Cambridge and Lancaster, organised on the same shoe-string lines, for love, to give younger women at the start of their sustainability careers a chance to hear from older women who've journeyed ahead of them and have a few of the battle scars to prove it.

I was lucky enough to get involved with SiS Lancaster, offering some facilitation support while I mulled on my own life and my idea for a SiS for older women.  I can see links with coaching, with peer learning and with the kind of support that sustainability change agents are crying out for, in my experience.

academic insights

The Lancaster event was beautifully organised by Becky Willis and Jess Phoenix, with support from the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, part of the Lancaster University.  Being run at the university meant that we got to hear from some brilliant women who could bring us rigorous academic insight into gender and sustainability leadership. 

Prof. Judi Marshall, whose work on the lived experience of being a sustainability change agent I've admired for years, shared insights on 'insider outsiders' and the role of gender in this. The cultural assumption and unconscious bias about the credibility and prestige of men means that there are difficult choices to be made about guest speakers at events: in the short term, is it better for our cause to have male contributors, because people will listen to them more?

We also heard from Prof. Gail Whiteman about the uncomfortable experiences early in her career which were "precious" because "they tell you what's important to you". Gail set up the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business and is bringing arctic ice to the attention of global boardrooms.  Literally. She's got plans to establish an arctic base camp at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Now that I'd like to see.

To complete the trio of professors, Prof. Caroline Gatrell shared stats on the place of women in leadership including the glass cliff: women are more likely to access top positions during periods of crisis or risk.  Maybe it's because they are seen as more creative or more safe. Maybe it's because they are seen as expendable. Theresa May springs to mind, as do Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman who have both 'held the fort' for Labour between 'proper' leaders.

what was it like?

As well as these insights from academic research (and the academic life), She is Sustainable made room for more personal life stories from older women, and lots of sharing among participants. The atmosphere was so warm and supportive, as well as being inspirational.  Younger women heard from older women and from each other about their careers in sustainability and how these interwove with life choices and unchosen circumstances.

We spoke together about following your heart and using your head, about finding your place and moving on. We shared experiences about balancing career with caring responsbilities, and about the different kinds of women we can be and want (or don't want) to be.

We used random everyday objects to open up about how we see ourselves as women who work in sustainability.

The world's most disappointing tombola...

The world's most disappointing tombola...


Speaking about the unspoken

I was lucky enough to facilitate two open space sessions, where topics were proposed which perhaps might not have been if the group had not been women-only.  Yes, there really was a session on periods and yes, there really was quite a lot to be shared and discussed about the impact of menstruation on work.

There was everyday sexism in the stories: the woman whose junior male colleague was addressed as the boss all the way through a business meeting; the casual assumptions about who will take the notes and make the tea. 

And there was conversation about racism, ethnicity and being a woman of colour in the sustainability field.

Yes, we did talk about periods in the open space session.

She is (still) sustainable

I went along partly to test out my guess that SiS could be tweaked a bit to provide a brilliant way for older women to discuss their choices: if you're mid-career, would it be useful to consider what's next?  Perhaps it's an "after children" conversation, or perhaps one about daring to take the next step upwards or sideways. Perhaps it's about being ready to change direction, to slow down or branch out.  or to take on your biggest challenge yet. Perhaps its about how you keep credible and energetic when your body is starting to let you down.  

I don't know what the conversations are that sustainability women at this later stage will want to have, but I do know that there was enthusiasm for the idea when I tested it, and I am brimming with ideas about how to adjust the SiS approach for this group of women. 

Let me know what you think!

Fresh water, salty water and sustainable resource use - business and the Sustainable Development Goals #3

Free diving world champion Umberto Pelizzari, raised a flag to represent Goal 14, Life Below Water, off the coast of Formentera, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Enric Sala.

Free diving world champion Umberto Pelizzari, raised a flag to represent Goal 14, Life Below Water, off the coast of Formentera, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Enric Sala.

In the third of my series on what business can do to support the Sustainable Development Goals, published in The Environmentalist, I look at goals 6 clean water and sanitation; 14 life below water and 12 responsible consumption and production.

I found lots of interesting action - most of which predates the SDGs - and was able to squeeze in impressive strides in reducing water use by Levi Strauss, Maersk Group starting to shift the entire ship breaking sector through its work in India and some head-to-head competition between Tesco and Sainsbury's on reducing food waste.  And much more...

You can read the article in its rightful home on The Environmentalist's site here, or if you're not an IEMA member or a subscriber you can download a pdf here.

The inevitable referendum blog post - what now?

I'm really sorry

A former colleague of mine is researching whether he's entitled to German citizenship because his Dad was born in Leipzig. His Dad was brought to the UK aged 3, to escape Nazi persecution. The colleague is looking into this because his own young daughters are aghast at having their opportunities to live and work in the European Union so drastically curtailed. The layers of irony are inexpressible. 

A young woman I know lives and works in London.  We met this morning, and she was in tears. She's German. She's fearful about her job and her life here. She's feeling alone and unwelcome.

Social media is full of examples of people being openly and aggressively racist towards white Europeans, and also towards the more familiar victims of such abuse: headscarf-wearing Muslims, people of colour, foreign-looking or sounding.  The result seems to have given people permission to unleash their worst selves. It's hard to practice assuming good intent.

Like another former colleague, I feel the need to keep apologising to friends and neighbours: it wasn't me, I voted remain, I stood in the rain handing out leaflets.  I'm really sorry.

A little bit of theory

In conflict resolution, there's a neat conceptual framework which helps explain how to find common ground in the face of irreconcilable positions.   PIN - Position, Interest, Need - basically invites you to ask 'what would that give you?', when faced with a positional statement. By telling each other about their interests and needs, the common ground shared by seeming opponents can be found and potentially expanded.

A referendum is a positional situation par excellence.  The question has two - and only two - possible answers, which are mutually incompatible.  

‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’

It's designed to oblige people to declare a position with clarity, to be definitive.

It's clear now that people had many distinct, different reasons for voting 'leave' - some of which were tangential to EU membership.  But the binary referendum question doesn't make nuances and reasons explicit - we have to guess the motivations.

What we need are conversations which help us understand the interests and the needs.  And I think it's best if the conversations are about the future (what country we want to become, what we want our relationship with EU to become) rather than the past (why we voted (or didn't) how we did) and who misled who.

understanding each other

I have heard a lot of remain supporters talking about the need to heal, reconcile, understand the complaints of leave supporters.  And at least one notable leave supporter, Dominic Raab, spoke on BBC Question Time today (Sunday) about the need to reach out to the 48% who are 'nervous' (14m50s onwards). 

This is not a question of wise, insightful people in one camp understanding the baffled and misinformed in another camp so that they can persuade them more effectively.  That is doomed to fail.

As Karen Armstrong says,

Do not enter into dialogue unless you are prepared to be fundamentally unsettled.

That kind of dialogue only works if people from all the perspectives want to enter into it. If they want to better understand each other.  If they actively want to find common ground and move forward together.  If they want to test and discover the

...far more in common than that which divides us.

The purpose of a new conversation

I think there is a role for deliberative conversations about two related questions.

  • What kind of relationship do we now want with the EU?
  • What kind of country(ies) do we want to build and how shall we do that?

The first is important because the mandate to leave didn't contain within it any detail about what kind of leaving people were voting for.

This second is important because leaving EU won't solve the all the problems that leavers hope it will solve, just as remaining wouldn't solve all the problems that remainers want it to.

Who could convene it?

Some people have been enjoying the idea that no-one wants to hold this particular dirty-nappied baby.  "You touched it last" is being played and it's giving rueful remainers a good laugh.  Who should lead the Article 50 negotiations?

I'm attracted to the idea of a national unity Government of some kind, a thought echoed by Giles Fraser on the same edition of Question Time.  Whether or not that is what we get, some body with the power to implement the mandate and which has some degree of credibility with leavers and remainers of many perspectives, could convene or commission this kind of process.

And if we are in the business of organising or convening those conversations, we need to be careful to scrutinise our own assumptions - 'they' only voted like that because they were misled by campaigners or the media, because they are old or poor or badly educated, or because they are young and wealthy and have degrees. Patronising and looking down on others is not a good way to enter into dialogue. If you can't keep your personal perspectives out of the room, then join in as a participant, not as a facilitator.  The facilitators will have their work cut out, helping people listen to each other with respect.

Whether or not the negotiators choose to listen to the deliberations, we need to understand each others needs and concerns with compassion and empathy which outshines what we've managed over the last few weeks.

Petitions, legal technicalities and clutching at straws

I - bitterly sorrowfully - regret the result of the referendum.  I wish it hadn't been called.  I wish the campaigns had been more honourable and honest, less shrill.  Less about rich white men deciding which of them gets to run Daddy's estate.  But I think the campaigns to seek a re-run or treat it as advisory are futile and a bit dangerous in themselves: perpetuating the positional divisions and putting off the time when we being to find common ground again.  Remain supporters look like sore losers, and that will cement the views of those who voted leave as a response to feeling disenfranchised and alienated.

What the result changes, and what it doesn't

The laws, taxes, spending programmes, climate change commitments we end up with will continue to be negotiated and decided on by politicians influenced by campaigners, lobbyists, the media and more-or-less formal test of public views.  This will continue whether we are in the EU or not.  I'm not convinced that trying to stop Brexit is the right strategy. (I reserve the right to change my mind, unlike referendum voters.)

Far more important to me, right now, is the agglomeration of individual conversations and interactions we have with each other - person to person. The referendum has shone a brutal light on divisions in our country, which are echoed and repeated across Europe and elsewhere.  How shall we live together, in an increasingly frightening and resource-constrained the future?  How shall we distribute power, agency, resources more fairly?

How shall we make sure that when the floods come, we rise out of the water carrying each other and not carrying guns?

Give your collaboration some backbone!

All collaborations need a strong, flexible backbone, holding it all together, channelling communication and letting the interesting bits get on with what they’re really good at.  I first came across the term ‘backbone organisation’ in the work of US organisation FSG, writing about what they call collective impact, but the need for a central team of some sort has been obvious throughout my work on collaboration.   

What is the 'backbone' and what does it do?

Sometimes called secretariat, host or convenor, the role of the central team encompasses three kinds of activity:

  • Helping the collaborators identify and build on common ground, and resolve differences of view (facilitation);
  • Being a secretariat – a point of contact, repository of information and supporting the terms of reference or other governance of the collaboration;
  • Project management or coordination roles in both governance-related activities, and the ‘doing’ of the work of the collaboration- although I have a big caution around this, which is explored below.

Reassuring the collaborators about how collaboration works

The central team also needs to have a keen understanding of how collaboration works, so that they can help the collaborators negotiate the inevitable challenges that arise (see series of posts on six characteristic challenges of collaboration).  They also need to be able to spot when the collaborators are relying on them too much to do the work of the collaboration – which should really be done by the collaborating organisations.  If the collaborating organisations can’t put their own time and resources into the work, then this raises questions about their commitment to the outcomes that the collaboration is seeking to achieve.  Perhaps they haven’t found joint outcomes which are truly compelling, and shouldn’t be collaborating.  The central team can help them spot this warning sign, and reflect on it.

So the central team needs skills which enable them to do a range of things, from top-notch administration to in-the-room facilitation skills and a good dose of assertiveness.

Does the backbone need to know, and care, about the issues?

Do they need technical knowledge about the subject that the collaborators are working on?  Do they need a commitment to the agenda or cause?

There are a couple of ways in which expertise and passion can be a downside.  This may seem a bit heretical, so I’ll explain my thinking.

When a collaboration begins, then the central tasks probably need to be shared among the potential collaborators, and shoe-horned into people’s already busy day jobs.  But very soon there will be more work of the facilitation and secretariat kind than can be easily accommodated in that way.  So dedicated resource is needed.  What might happen next?  Here are some scenarios.

Organisation A is passionate about the potential of the collaboration to meet its own goals, and steps forward to offer that resource.  There’s space in its office, and a staff person is put on the case.  Very soon, all the collaborators begin to see it as Organisation A’s ‘project’.  The staff person’s line manager sees it that way too.  Organisation A becomes too influential in the decision-making, and also sees itself as carrying the other collaborators.  The commitment which led them to step forward is fabulous. But it unbalances the collaboration, which collapses back into being a set of less engaged supporters of Organisation A’s work.

In another collaboration, Organisation B is contracted to provide the central role.  They are answerable to a small mixed board of some kind, and so the decision-making continues to be balanced and shared between collaborators.  But Organisation B was chosen for its technical knowledge, rather than its skills in collaboration.  Perhaps it gave a very keen price for its services, because of its commitment, which added to the attractiveness of its offer.  Organisation B has lots of opinions on what the collaboration should be doing and either wants to influence the content, or becomes too much of a delivery organisation rather than a facilitative organisation.  The collaborators begin to view it as the sole way that the collaboration is ‘doing’ its work, and their own active commitment to using internal resources and expertise in a coordinated way to meet the collaboration’s outcomes begins to fade.  

Organisation C is a purpose-led non-profit with ambitious goals.  It decides to convene a collaboration around one of those goals.  The collaborators who come together agree with the goals, but individually are not so committed or ambitious.  Organisation C finds itself acting either as a facilitator of conversations between the collaborators (but frustrated at its inability to input its own ambitious ideas) or as a challenger and motivator to higher ambition (and therefore agreeing with some collaborators and not others, compromising its ability to facilitate).

Can one of the collaborators be the backbone?

My strong advice would be to avoid this if at all possible.  It is very hard to avoid the pressure from the rest of the organisation to ‘make’ the collaboration do X or Y.  And it’s also very hard to counteract the slide towards it being seen as something other than collaboration. 

Should the backbone have commitment and expertise in the content?

This can work, but there are risks which the collaborators and central team need to be alive to: having all the ‘actions’ dumped into the centre, and getting the balance of challenge vs neutral facilitation right.  Collaborations need both an ‘organic leader’ and an ‘honest broker’.  There’s more on how this might be done in this blog post.

Real-world collaborations

When I was writing Working Collaboratively, I interviewed a few people about this.  Craig Bennett, currently Executive Director of FOE EWNI, told me about his time convening the Corporate Leaders Group.

“If you have more than a small number of parties, then don’t underestimate the value of proper neutral facilitation and a secretariat.”

Whether that third party role should be truly neutral was less clear.  Signe Bruun Jensen of Maersk Line valued the facilitation combined with the challenge and conscience role that Forum for the Future brought to the Sustainable Shipping Initiative:

“You need that challenger role.  If you can find it in a facilitator then great – he or she can help create a sense of urgency and purpose that pushes the process along. I think the real challenge is for the facilitator – whether he or she can balance that potential conflict of interest. That’s why we ultimately decided to split the role in the later stages of the process.”

While you can buy in a neutral facilitator (if you have the resource to do so), you cannot invent a trusted, powerful ‘organic’ leader - who has credibility among the collaborators, understands the subject and has ambition for transformative solutions - if they are not already in the system.

You may be such a person, or you may need to get such a person on board. 

Jonathon Porritt, Founder Director of Forum for the Future, has been involved in catalysing many collaborative initiatives, including the Sustainable Shipping Initiative.  He said:

“You have to be able to get the right people into the room at some stage. If you don’t have that ability yourself you have to find someone who has.”

So you need that ambitious, challenging, exciting expertise. Heart, guts, brain. And you need, separately, your backbone.




What are your 'engagement aims'?

Three purposes of engagement - the engagement triangle

Three purposes of engagement - the engagement triangle

I love helping teams plan their engagement at an early stage of their thinking.  It's often done in a workshop, and we end up with an excellently solid shared understanding of what their engagement process is for, which then guide choices about methods, sequencing, aims for individual elements of the process and which stakeholders to engage.

One of the hardest disciplines to stick to - and yet one of the most useful - is to get really clear about the (multiple) engagement aims.

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.

The triangle helps the team get clear about:

  • What they need to transmit to people outside the team - more everyday words like 'tell', 'educate', 'raise awareness', 'inspire', 'persuade' also fit under this heading. 
  • What they need to receive from people outside the team - 'ask', 'insight', 'research' which might include both objective facts and opinion or preferences.
  • What they need to collaborate with people outside the team, to 'create', 'decide', 'agree', 'develop'.

There are a few more things to note about engagement aims.

Aligned with "what's up for grabs"

Engagement aims should align seamlessly with "what's up for grabs": if you've really already decided there will be a new range of water-efficiency equipment in your stores, don't ask people whether you should start selling it. Tell them you are going to.  Ask them what would make the range successful, or collaborate with them to co-design a promotional partnership.  

If you have preferences about the range (price points, supplier's sustainability credentials) then tell people about these so that their responses can take appropriate account of those criteria.

If you are entirely open-minded about some aspects, then people can have free rein to come up with ideas.

Be clear who is deciding what

If you are asking people for information, ideas, options and so on, make sure that you tell them who is making the final decision, or how it will be made. People very often mistake consultation (a receive activity) for shared decision-making (which sits in the collaborate corner). 

Voting in a local council election is shared decision-making: the number of votes completely determines who wins the seat.  Consultation on a planning application gives members of the public an opportunity to voice their perspective, elected councillors may take those views into account when determining the application.  Once the decision has been made, the planning authority will then tell people what the decision is.

In particular people interpret mechanisms which look like voting, as meaning that decision-making power has been devolved. Hence the grumpiness about Boaty McBoatface.

Consensus is a way of reaching a decision in a collaborative setting (although it is not the only one).  If you are receiving views (and then making the decision yourself) then, while it can be interesting to discover areas of consensus, it is not essential. Understanding the range of views (and the needs and concerns that underlie them) can be as useful.

The aims will change as the process unfolds

Just as the things which are fixed, negotiable and open will change over time, so will the engagement aims.  During an option-creating phase, things are likely to be more collaborative as people co-create possibilities.  You are also likely to want to receive a wide range of views and information.  Once options have been identified, then preferences and feedback are useful, but you may not want to encourage people to come up with entirely new options.  (Of course, if none of your options are acceptable, you may well need to to do this.  In effect you will be going back to being open, rather than having negotiable options.)  And when you've decided on a fixed outcome, tell people. 

Aims for individual activities within the wider process

Some activities are brilliantly suited to tell aims, others to ask aims and some to collaborate aims.  A feedback form on a newsletter is unlikely to elicit a well-worked up option supported by multiple parties.  A focus group isn't a good way of getting your message out. 

Here's a table of appropriate techniques.

Engagement methods and the kinds of aims they are most suited to

Engagement methods and the kinds of aims they are most suited to

Aims for different stakeholders

Depending on the kind of 'stake' they have, you will want to engage different stakeholders with different levels of intensity and it's highly likely that you will have different engagement aims for different stakeholders or types of stakeholder.

When developing a strategic flood plan, for example, you may want to tell residents and people who work in a particular area that the plan is being developed, how they can keep informed about its progress, what their opportunities are to input and in due course, what you have decided.

You will want to ask landowners, parish and town councillors and those people managing particular businesses, nature reserve, utilities and vital services what their aspirations and needs are over the time period of the plan, and for data about geology, biodiversity, demographics and so on. 

And you will want to collaborate with key decision-makers whose support and active involvement is vital for the success of the strategy - e.g. county council, lead local flood authority and so on. 

Plan and improvise

This kind of strategic, analytical approach shouldn't be seen as a way of tying you down. The engagement plan should be a living thing: not sitting on a shelf gathering dust.  In fact, it gives the team a great foundation of shared understanding of the context and objectives which makes improvising in response to changing circumstances much more successful.



5 minute meeting makeover

5 minute meeting makeover

We know it shouldn’t be like this, but sometimes we find ourselves in a meeting which is ill-defined, purposeless and chaotic.

Maybe it’s been called at short notice.  Maybe everyone thought someone else was doing the thinking about the agenda and aims.  Maybe the organisation has a culture of always being "too busy" to pay attention to planning meetings.

For whatever reason, you’re sitting there and the conversation has somehow begun without a structured beginning. 

This is the moment to use the five minute meeting makeover!

A global purpose: the Sustainable Development Goals and business #2

Business can help society meet the Sustainable Development Goals (aka Global Goals). Find out more about work on hunger, health and quality education.

Thanks to the lovely people at IEMA's The Environmentalist magazine, for the invitation to write this series on business response to the SDGs.  It's given me a reason to talk to lots of people doing important work inside lots of businesses and NGOs.

The second article is now out (May 2016), and it covers goals 2, 3 and 4:

You can access the article, and plenty of other environmental news, here, either sign in with your IEMA login, subscribe or take a free trial.

Alternatively, there's a pdf of it here.   The first article in the series, giving an introduction to the SDGs and looking at Goal 1 (poverty) and Goal 5 (Gender) is here.


Has there been a tipping point for sustainable business?

Sustainability types were discussing the Sustainable Development Goals (aka Global Goals) in London last night, at a regular meeting of The Crowd. If you are twitter-enabled, you can search for the #crowdforum tweets to follow that way.

I've got very interested in the SDGs, since being asked to write a series of articles about how business is responding, for The Environmentalist.

There was some great conversation, and I was particularly struck by Claire Melamed's view that businesses can cherry pick (or have strategic priorities) among the SDGs, as long as a business doesn't actively undermine any of the goals or targets.  That seems a pretty clear minimum ask!

How would you tell if a goal is being actively undermined?

So how would you tell?  Perhaps the easiest is to do an audit-style check against all 169 of the targets, and spot the krill oil which is staining the otherwise spotless business practices. Some will be easier to test than others, so the views of stakeholders will probably be useful in helping see the business's practices from a variety of angles.

What are the sanctions and disincentives?

The people who spoke about this seemed to be relying on good old fashioned campaigns to bring the undermining to public attention and turn it into a business issue for the company concerned.  Which seems pretty familiar to me. One person used the Greenpeace campaign against the use of unsustainable palm oil by Nestle's Kit Kat as an example.  And that campaign was way back in 2010. Friends of the Earth was launched in the UK with a mass bottle dump outside Schweppes headquarters, which became a well-known photo at the time.  Social media ensures that campaigns like this can become viral in a few hours. But in essence they are nothing new.

Another person said "you'd have to be not in your right mind, to actively undermine any of these goals."  And perhaps she's right.  But it's clear that either lots of people haven't been in their right minds, or perhaps it's been perfectly rational to undermine social and ecological life support systems, because we are here and here isn't a great place for many of the critical issues highlighted by the global goals.  Once again I find myself wobbling between irrational optimism and chronic unease.

But let's give this optimist the benefit of the doubt, and assume that it is now rational to avoid actively undermining the goals. 

What's changed?

The claim was made, with some strength of feeling, that COP21's agreement in Paris has made a tangible difference, with analysts using climate and fossil fuel exposure to make investment recommendations.  And there seemed to be general agreement in the room that this was new and significant.  And today, two days after the Crowd forum event, comes the news that Peabody Energy (the world's biggest privately-owned coal producer) has filed for bankruptcy.  So that's one of the 17 goals accounted for. 

Other voices suggested that the 17 goals will set a broad context for action by policy makers and government, helping business decision-makers have more certainty about what the future holds and therefore being more confident to invest in goal-friendly products, services and ways of doing business.  On the other hand, people noticed the apparent disconnect between the UK Government's pledges in Paris, and its action to undermine renewables and energy efficiency, and support fossil fuel extraction, in the subsequent budget and policy decisions.

Another change was the rise of the millenials, who make up increasing proportions of the workforce, electorate and buying public.  Their commitment to values was seen as a reason for optimism, although there was also a recognition that we can't wait for them to clear up our mess.  (As someone who still clears up her own millenial children's mess, while said young people are jetting off and buying fast fashion off the interwebs, I am perhaps a little cynical about how values translate into action for this generation.)

And the final bid for what's changed, is the recognition and willingness of players to collaborate in order to create system-level change.  And the good news on this is that there is a lot of practical understanding being shared about how to make collaboration work (Working Collaboratively is just one contribution to this), and specialist organisations to help.

So has there been a tipping point?

Lots of people were insisting to me that there has.  There were few negative voices. In fact, some contributors said they were bored and in danger of falling asleep, such was the level of agreement in the room.  I was left with the impression that we're getting close to a critical mass of business leaders wanting to do the right thing, and they need support and pressure from the rest of us to make it in their short-term interests to do so.

So is it back to the placards, or sticking with the post-it notes?

Just listen

Earlier this year I went on a short course on Thinking Partnerships - part of the stable of approaches developed by Nancy Kline of Time to Think fame.  This course was run by Linda Aspey, of Coaching for Leaders.

The Thinking Partnership approach

There are a few aspects of the Time to Think approach which are worth noting: the ten components of a Thinking Environment; the uncovering of limiting assumptions and the use of incisive questions.  I've found these powerful in coaching and other situations.

But the thing that really struck me on the course, and in the practice sessions I had with other participants, is the power of just listening.

Actually, it's not just listening.

It's paying "generative attention": promising not to interrupt; focusing on the person who's doing the thinking - whether they are thinking aloud or silently; exuding a warm neutrality, neither praising nor dismissing what they say.

This kind of listening has a powerful impact on the person who is being listened to. In that space of acceptance and ease, they explore and solve their own problems. It is rather marvellous to be the mirror for someone who is combing through the tangle of their confusion or distress: doing (almost) nothing, and yet catalysing such great work. And having the privilege to observe them doing it.

Listening as support

In another part of my life, I'm a member of a volunteer community support team.  We promise to listen confidentially (within the usual boundaries) to people who need some kind of support through a hard time.  We don't offer advice.  For some of the team, the idea that 'just listening' could be enough was hard to accept at first. It feels awkward. It feels like such a minor intervention.

Our team leader shared some wonderful quotes on listening:

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don't have to do anything else. We don't have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.

- Margaret J. Wheatley

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.

- Shel Silverstein

You can practice deep listening in order to relieve the suffering in us, and in the other person. That kind of listening is described as compassionate listening. You listen only for the purpose of relieving suffering in the other person.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

Sharing expectations for an unusual conversation

This kind of conversation is unusual. It's not the turn-taking social interaction which we're used to. When we're doing this kind of supportive listening, it's not our job to make things right for the other person.  And it's not their job to make things right for us.  (This heartbreaking piece by Decca Aitkenhead describes how she learnt to reassure her friends that she was coping bravely, following a devastating bereavement.)

So it's a good idea to invite the other person to this kind of conversation - to explain that you're planning to listen and not interrupt, and not to give advice or share your own story - and for them to accept or decline the invitation. 

For the community listening, we have a simple form of words to help people know what to expect:

We aim to offer a confidential listening service, so we’d expect that you will do most of the talking and [your community listening team member] will do most of the listening. We’re not there to share our own stories, make judgements or offer advice. We will listen, maybe ask questions, and point you towards other sources of support if that’s appropriate.

Observing culture

I had some tantalising opportunities to discretely observe organisational culture in action earlier this week, when I was an in-patient for 36 hours.


My bed had a good view of some double doors, leading to another ward. There was quite a lot of equipment in front of the doors. There was also a woven red cloth barrier (not just flimsy police tape) across the space reading "do not enter except in an emergency ". I could see a matching barrier on the far side of the doors.

Schein's "artefact" exhibit one. (For more on Schein, see:…/a-z-of-csr-change-management)

What about the "observable behaviour"?

Staff regularly ducked under both sets of tape to use the doors. According to their uniforms (and lack of them), this was staff of a range of specialisms and levels. I didn't observe any staff doing so in pairs or groups. One looked slightly shamefaced when they caught my eye. No obvious emergencies were underway.

I observed about a dozen staff ducked under the barrier, at least two making the return journey as well, in the 36 hours I was there: some of the time I was asleep, or away from the ward for tests.

Espoused values

The clear "espoused value" was to not use the doors, with exceptions for emergencies.

Lots of staff were prepared to openly (although perhaps not in sight of other staff) disregard the combination of message and barrier. The barrier had not, however, been removed.

Basic underlying assumptions

I didn't get a chance to ask anyone about what was going on, but I have a few ideas. I'd be interested in your ideas and interpretations!

But as Schein himself was eager to stress, the observer is not the best person to interpret the meaning of the artefacts: people from inside the culture are best placed to do so.

Who are "we"?

When people are collaborating or working in groups, there is sometimes ambiguity about where things (like policy decisions, research briefings, proposals) have come from, and who is speaking for whom.  If you are convening a collaboration (or being a “backbone” organisation) this can be especially sensitive.  Collaborating organisations may think that when you say “we”, you mean “we, the convenor team” when in fact you mean “we, all the collaborating organisations in this collaboration”.  Or vice versa.  This can lead to misunderstanding, tension, anger if people think you are either steam-rollering them or not properly including them.

Who are 'You'?   

In general, think about whether to say “you” or “we”.  When you use "you", there's a very clear divide between yourself and the people you are addressing.  This is often going to be unhelpful in collaboration, as it can reinforce suspiscions that the collaboration is not a coalition of willing equals, but somehow a supplicant or hierarchical relationship.

Who are 'we'?

“We” is clearly more collaborative, BUT the English language is ambiguous here, so watch out!

“We” can mean

‘me and these other people, not including you’ 

(This is technically called ‘exclusive we’, by linguists.)


‘me and you’ (and maybe some other people).  

(‘Inclusive we’, to linguists.)

If you mean ‘me and you’, but the reader or listener hears ‘me and these other people, not including you’, then there can be misunderstandings.

For this reason, it can be helpful to spell out more clearly who you mean rather than just saying ‘we’.

What might this look like in practice?

These are examples from real work, anonymised.

In a draft detailed facilitation plan for a workshop, the focus question proposed was:

"What can we do to enable collaborative working?”

It was changed to:

“What can managers in our respective organisations do to enable collaborative working?”

The ‘we’ in original question was meant to signify “all of us participating in this session today” but the project group commenting on the plan interpreted it as “the organisers”.  The new wording took out ‘we’ and used a more specific set of words instead.

A draft workshop report contained this paragraph:

“We do not have an already established pot of money for capital programmes that may flow from this project. One opportunity is to align existing spend more effectively to achieve the outcomes we want.”

This was changed to:

“[XXX organisation] does not have an already established pot of money for capital programmes that may flow from this project. One opportunity is to align existing spend more effectively to achieve the outcomes agreed by [YYY collaboration].”

Both uses of ‘we’ were ambiguous.  The first meant ‘The convening organisation’.  The second meant ‘we, the organisations and people involved in agreeing outcomes’.  

The changes make this crystal clear.

Cometh the "our"

 The same ambiguity applies with ‘our’.  For example, when you refer to “our plan” be clear whether you mean “[Organisation XXX]’s plan” or “the plan owned by the organisations collaborating together”. 


This post was originally written by Penny Walker, in a slightly different form, for a Learning Bulletin produced by InterAct Networks for the Environment Agency as part of its catchment pilot programme.

For more exciting detail on 'clusivity', including a two-by-two matrix, look here.






Ritual and joining an established group

Yesterday I was at a family funeral. The rite was one I'm only a little familiar with: enough to follow, but not enough to know what was coming next. It's made me reflect on the rituals - acknowledged and unnoticed - that we perpetuate in groups and professions. So comforting and affirming for those in the know. Provoking anxiety, confusion or ridicule in the newcomer.

There was a written 'order of service', which included the information that no doubt seemed useful to those who wrote it - the things that would be different, or special, about the event. The things that would be the same as they always are, were not included. Which makes sense if you are already part of the group and you know what those things are, and means you are very lost if you are there for the first time.

What do we take the time to explain to people who are new to our way of working? What do we consider so self-evident that we don't think explanation is needed? How do we respond when someone asks or seems lost?

What do we open our minds to when we first join a group? What do we do to show we are interested and curious, yet a bit lost? What do we attack, without having the patience to observe and attempt to understand?