Interested in sustainability? Then call the MIT Sloan Management Review, fall 2009 issue, a page turner – it includes a special report on sustainability and competitive advantage. Even better, an expanded special report is available, online, for free, thanks to sponsorship from SAS.
This report draws from in-depth interviews with more than 50 sustainability thought leaders and corporate CEOs around the world, including General Electric, Unilever, Nike, Royal Dutch Shell, Interface and BP. Shaped by the findings from those interviews, 1500 corporate executives and managers were surveyed about their perspectives on the intersection of sustainability and business strategy. Choose summary PDF or full E-Zine report (with PDF available within report – choose “Download” from the toolbar.)
Pundits interviewed in the print issue include Amory Lovins, Henry Mintzberg, Peter Schwartz, and Interface CEO, Ray Anderson. Online, you can also hear from John R. Ehrenfeld, Peter Senge and others…
¬© 2009 Gary Ralston
On December 30, 2008, the Long Term Future made a cameo appearance on the front page of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) after a prolonged absence…
ROUND ROCK, Texas — Computer giant Dell Inc. said this summer that it has become “carbon neutral,” the latest step in its quest to be “the greenest technology company on the planet.” [full article]
The Dell article is remarkable not for its content, but that, as a story about a longer timeframe, it even made it to the front page. The bigger headline is that the recession of 2008 drove the discussion about the ramifications of the long-term future of the planet and its inhabitants off the table. Many in business and government¬† dropped the environmental agenda in an instant. In its place, a worldwide, short-term focus on the immediate crises. Clean-energy firms watched their stocks fall and funding dry up. Two days later, in the WSJ 2008 markets and finance roundup, the environment’s chief competitor, oil, is mentioned 15 or so times; the environment, two times:
April 17, 2008: Changing course on global warming, President Bush calls for halting the growth of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025 but provides few specifics.
November 26, 2008: Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reach record highs and show no signs of leveling off, a U.N. agency says.
So here’s a question: How many trillions of dollars will it take to restore the economy, short-term, while glossing over issues of food, air, water, population, climate and peace, long-term? What happened to our leaders? What happened to their stated aspirations? What happened to the future?
Reaction vs. Aspiration:
In this turbulent last quarter of 2008, we have seen the leaders we observe and interact with sharply divided into two camps:
- Reactive: What are we going to do about the crisis at-hand? Get rid of the problem.
- Aspirational: What are our long-term goals? How do we pursue them? Create the future.
This is not to say that those focused on their long-term goals do not also address the short-term crises. It is simply that the driving force is long-term, and their short-term actions are aligned with the longer goal. We are pleased to report that most of our clients are doing well, and pursue their aspirations while quite sensibly dealing with the current reality.
But we are most concerned that the reactive orientation seems to be ruling much of leadership in big business, government and the general public. At conferences, in boardrooms, and across dinner tables, the discussion has collapsed from years and decades to days, months and quarters. The 3-year plan (does anyone recall the 5- or 10-year plan?) has been replaced by the emergency / bailout plan. Even many whose hope for change is invested in President-elect Obama are shaken by the enormity of the circumstances his administration faces as they take office.
When the reactive orientation rules the day, the way OUT of the crisis is not necessarily the way FORWARD to our desired future.
Head in the Clouds; Feet on the Ground:
Leaders practiced in organizing around their aspirations in less-than-ideal circumstances have developed certain disciplines around envisioning a goal, assessing the situation and taking innovative action. Following are a few tips in each of these categories.
Focusing on the future goal:
- Start with the End in Mind: When it comes to discussing situation (present) and goal (future),¬† choice of sequence really matters to one’s ability to focus on true aspirations. This is doubly so when up to one’s hind-end in alligators. Talk about the present before the future, and we might as well launch the discussion saying, “Given the dire circumstances, what can we get away with, here??”. Start by talking about the future, and the tone is quite different: “What matters, here? Independent of circumstance, what do we truly want?”.
- Avoid Mixing: In a crisis, bringing up future goals can start a tennis match. The first speaker serves with: “We want to release a fully-electric car.” The second returns with: “But oil is $40 / barrel today, and the price fluctuates! That’ll never happen.”
Instead, split the discussion into two short rounds. For the first couple of minutes, focus on the goal. If someone (or the devil’s advocate in our brain!) tries to counter the goal with details of the current situation, assure them (or ourselves!) that it will be up for discussion momentarily.
- Be Concrete, and use Dates and Measures of Success: It won’t work be vague about goals that matter to us. What if we are moved to “do something about US residential carbon emissions”? That’s vague, and even smacks of problem-solving. Consider instead:¬† “By 2050, all homes in the US are heated and cooled with renewable energy, and require 60% less energy, overall, than in 2009.”William O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance once said, “At the end of the day, you ask yourself, ‘How did our vision influence our actions?’ If the answer is ‘It didn’t,’ the vision is just words.” [pp331-332, The Necessary Revolution]
- Choose Where to Focus: In good times, it’s easy to pursue what we want. In our minds, the outcome can seem virtually guaranteed. But when times are tough, and we remove the guarantee, we often learn where our focus has been – and that we now have a choice.If our senior motive was not reaching the goal, but instead achieving the Return on Investment if the goal is reached, but we now lack a guaranteed ROI, we are apt to abandon the goal. If, on the other hand, we find we are focused on realizing the goal for its own sake, we have a different relationship with the goal, and are more likely to follow through.Please don’t read a value judgment about pursuing ROI. The essential question is: which motive is dominant in driving our involvement with the goal? If our dominant focus and motivation is to realize the goal, rather than reap its benefits, the goal is more likely to be realized. It’s a key choice.
Focusing on the current situation:
Since we led with the goal, we now can take a different tack with our situation assessment:
- Keep it Relevant: Given a clear goal, one has a new, more efficient way of organizing the discussion about reality – facts relevant to achieving the goal, and facts that are irrelevant to the achievement of the goal (and now don’t need to be discussed past the test of relevance).
- Keep it Real: Separate fact from opinions and assumptions, and be vigilant for deeply-held assumptions and beliefs masquerading as fact. Identifying what we don’t know is every bit as useful as confirming what we do know. Brain expert, John J. Medina points out that the brain isn’t interested in reality. It is more interested in survival, and as a consequence, [unattended] memory is not reliable. The brain will change the perception of reality to stay in survival mode. The key to reliable memory is to consistently reexpose oneself to the information. [HBR May, 2008, reprint R0805B]. So stay grounded in the facts of reality.
- Don’t Navigate by Emotion: There is nothing wrong with emotions. They simply don’t happen to be a reliable indicator of the situation, or of progress toward long-term goals. As heretical as it might sound, you might well benefit from ignoring yourself in this department, and refocus on the goal and the situation.
Taking action in complex times:
- A Time for Learners: When presented with smooth trends, the human mind is good at guessing what will happen next. In times of great and rapid change such as these, it is not nearly so good at prediction. Experience and formulas and best practices fail us. Students of Complexity suggest a different strategy for effecting change where past performance has proven unreliable for predicting future outcomes: Probe, Sense, Respond. It is virtually the same process used to find one’s way across a dark bedroom without stubbing a toe.
- When At A Loss: When we don’t know what to do next – and it happens to all of us – what DO we do? Focus on the goal. Locate current reality. Study the difference between the two. Then invent a set of actions to move from reality to the goal. The result of any action can be evaluated and learned from, and our action plan adjusted.But when disruptive forces hit a company, all processes are up for re-evaluation. Why are we still executing this process? Is the goal still valid? Is the current situation different from the circumstances under which the process was created and refined? Given a clear goal and accurate current reality, we can determine what to keep of the process, and what to change.
Two points of light:
While we realize that times are truly challenging everywhere, we are inspired by the human capacity to transcend circumstance and envision a desired future. At its simplest, to organize around aspirations is to focus on not just one, but two pictures at once: current reality and the goal. Reconnect with what matters. Treat the current situation not as an adversary, but as a starting point on the journey. Continually test the actions in relation to the goal. By doing so, we improve the odds that the way out of the present crisis is also the way forward.
¬© 2008 Gary Ralston and the respective copyright holders.
Companies spend huge amounts of money to be ‘socially responsible.’ Do consumers reward them for it? And how much?
We recommend this article, written by Remi Trudel and June Cotte of University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business, and published in both the Wall Street Journal, and the MITSloan Management Review, and its related podcast.
In the study, the researchers set out to determine how much consumers were willing to pay for a commodity (in this case, coffee and t-shirts), when presented with the ethical track record of the company behind the product. They found that while consumers will pay a premium to a company with at least some socially responsible practices (25% organic cotton, for instance), they wouldn’t pay much more for a company using 100% organic cotton. On the flip side, researchers discovered that consumers punished clearly un-ethical companies (i.e. lacking ethnic diversity, hurting the environment, sweatshop labor), only buying their products at a steep discount.
The findings set up an interesting tension between the economics of the business (invest only enough in ethical practice to change perception and benefit from higher margins), and the values and principles of the company (operate in a socially-responsible manner in every way we can, within our business model). Nonetheless, the conclusion is that the consumer will reward socially responsible behavior and punish unethical behavior through their buying choices.
How do your customers rate your company?
- illustration: Rob Shepperson, wsj.com
As a global community, we have until 2015 to cap carbon dioxide emissions at 400 ppm, and 2 degrees Celsius average warming, or reach a tipping point leading to an unstoppable, runaway overheating of the planet.
That’s pretty much the bottom line from this extremely well-researched and well-written book by journalist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Mark Lynas. In Six Degrees, Lynas paints six scenarios of how the planet will be different – one for each degree Celsius of average global temperature increase. I’ve read the summaries for policymakers published by the Nobel Award-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and as clear as they are, they simply don’t give you the same gut-level grasp for just how much our current way of business – and of life – will be overturned.
National Geographic thought so, too, and used Mark’s work as the basis for their television special: Six Degrees Could Change the World. I suggest that you click on the Video tab, and work all the way through the various video clips. Consider, for instance, this chilling SFX shot of a New York subway car abandoned in a tunnel flooded by rising sea levels. Many of us reading this blog will easily live long enough to experience this possible future. And many of us will not want to look. Heck, I had trouble completing my research for this article because I felt overwhelmed by the scale and immediacy of the problem. But look, we must.
In strategy, structure and systems, we are always on the lookout for feedback loops. Well, our planet has some enormous temperature-triggered positive feedback loops – tipping points or points of no return – just waiting for some species to trip them.
The first threshold, for carbon-cycle feedback, is around 3 degree Celsius of warming – 450 ppm of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Large amounts of Carbon Dioxide are predicted to be released from “reservoirs”, among them the burning forests of the Amazon and Malaysia, and the thawing Arctic icecaps and tundra.
The second threshold, for Siberian methane feedback, is around 4 degrees Celsius of warming – 550 ppm of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Large amounts of methane (23 times as potent as the same amount of Carbon Dioxide) are predicted to be released from “reservoirs”, such as those in Siberia, and methane hydrate in deep sea deposits.
So where are we now? In 2007, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) was at 382 ppm (parts per million), and we currently increase about 2 ppm per year.
Lynas concludes, based upon his review of the available research, that in order to have even a 75 percent certainty of keeping temperatures below the magic 2-degree threshold, we have seven years to reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases globally and hit a safety target of around 400 ppm of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions must peak by or before 2015, and decline by 85 percent by 2050. If we let it get to 3 degrees (as early as 2050), feedback cycles kick in, and we risk a one-way ticket to 6 degrees of global warming and mass extinction on a scale not seen since the End-Permian age.
The numbers ought to chill us all to the bone, and then fire us into immediate re-thinking of all parts of our business and lifestyle, and the prospects for our descendants.
As Lynas put it:
“We humans, one species of animal among millions, have now become de facto guardians of the planet’s climate stability – a service that used to be provided free (given a few ups and downs) by nature. Without realizing it, we have appointed ourselves janitors, our sweaty ape hands resting heavily on the climatic thermostat. A more awesome responsibility can scarcely be imagined.”
Immediate Business Implications:
Business Carbon Emissions WILL be regulated: We all know that business has had a free ride, not having to account for the global cost of releasing Greenhouse Gases. In the following decades, financial statements and regulatory reports will also account for credits and debits of these gases. If your supply chain is carbon intensive, your costs will climb.
Consumers and regulators are demanding that business be accountable for the Total Lifecycle of products and services: Large business is already having to do this. Smaller businesses should be scrambling to figure out how to manage the cost of policing their entire supply chains, and extend their financial models to include liability for disposal. Learn more at sites such as The Climate Conservancy, a non-profit created by scientists from Stanford University.
There will be a social backlash against conspicuous consumption and the disposable economy, fueled by the climate crisis: As with so many of us, our parents grew up during the depression, when recycling went by another name – survival. In my case, our family began formally recycling about the time man first landed on the moon, and has never stopped. Fast forward 40 years. In my home town of Vancouver, BC, Canada, recycling is required, and garbage is spot-checked for infractions. Yet here in Central Ohio, Ann and I must pay for the privilege of recycling. Only two families do so on our street.
Today, US consumers have trashed ninety-nine percent of all goods they buy within six months of the date of purchase. Only one percent is still in use. The US – five percent of the world’s population – consumes 30 percent of the world’s resources and creates 30 percent of the world’s garbage. It is horrifying to think that much of the world’s population would be clamoring to emulate the US. Visit this website – www.storyofstuff.com – for a brilliant animated presentation sponsored by the Tides Foundation, and others.
Bottom line – if your business model depends on rampant consumerism, planned and perceived obsolescence and depends upon externalized costs, your free ride may run out, really soon. Which brings us to the next issue…
Public companies will be at even worse odds with the people leading them: As a system, the stock markets (i.e. Wall Street, stockholders, 24-year-old analysts in cubicles, news media, etc.) wants public corporations to focus short-term to produce unending growth of revenue and profit. As humans, the presidents and CEO’s go home to their families – children and grandchildren – whom they care about very much. It is natural that they would want to use all their supposed influence to give them a better future – say, reversing global warming. But to do so, they must go back to work and focus long-term – whereupon they are promptly fired for not keeping their eyes on quarterly profit performance.
In the end, we as a global community must institute a new definition of success for public companies. We must create markets that value planetary stewardship in addition to ROI in setting the share prices on the daily exchange.
There will be no silver bullet: There is no single thing that will reverse global warming, nor two, nor three. There will likely be seven to fifteen major initiatives, and thousands of minor ones. Of these options, conservation – using less in the first place – should be at the top of the list. This is great news for business, both large and small, because it means that no one will have a monopoly on the business opportunities presented by this crisis / opportunity. In the next decade, there will be a flow of funding and resources to this megaproject that will be measured in percentages of our planetary GDP.
A suggestion for how to build momentum to change:
Ann and I are acutely aware of our own immense discomfort in relating to this issue. Yet, we want to know reality even more, and that lets us take one more step. Here’s what you might consider:
- Go watch the video footage at National Geographic’s ¬†Six Degrees Could Change the World site, then read the summary for policymakers at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change site.
- Watch The Story of Stuff.
- At the very least, read the last chapter – Choosing our Future – of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas.
- Browse The Climate Conservancy site.
- For your business, schedule reviews of business strategy and process. Research what your suppliers are doing. Evaluate your liability for disposal of your products. Re-think how you generate wealth, and realign your strategy to mitigate, and even profit from reversing global warming.
- In your personal life, take inventory on your progress toward reducing your environmental footprint. There are thousands of sites to help. We Can Solve the Climate Crisis, a project of the Alliance for Climate Protection, founded by Nobel Laureate, Al Gore, is a great site recommended by our colleagues. National Geographic launched The Green Guide, where I found this excellent article on switching to green power through our existing public utility. Google “Carbon Footprint” for many more options.
The biggest change in the business and social climate in our time will be the change from a society of consumption and competition to a society of sustainability and cooperation. Plan to be part of leading this change. And if it wouldn’t be too much bother, please start today. Seven years will pass in a blink of an eye.
¬© 2008 Gary Ralston and the respective copyright holders – all rights reserved
A 60 mpg Hummer with double the horsepower and very low emissions??? What about a 'green' Boeing 747 Jet?
So starts Motorhead Messiah, this month’s cover story at FastCompany.com.
Goodwin is getting incredible, real-world improvements in fuel economy, horsepower and reduced emissions by combining diesel, electric and flexible fuel technology, mostly with stock components already in production. What’s more, his company, SAE Energy, is working to deploy this technology for vehicle fleets.
What really caught my attention was a discussion of¬† infusing hydrogen or natural gas into biodiesel for some radical improvements in fuel economy and emissions:
While researching alternative fuels, [Goodwin] learned about the work of Uli Kruger, a German who has spent decades in Australia exploring techniques for blending fuels that normally don’t mix. One of Kruger’s systems induces hydrogen into the air intake of a diesel engine, producing a cascade of emissions-reducing and mileage-boosting effects. The hydrogen, ignited by the diesel combustion, burns extremely clean, producing only water as a by-product. It also displaces up to 50% of the diesel needed to fuel the car, effectively doubling the diesel’s mileage and cutting emissions by at least half. Better yet, the water produced from the hydrogen combustion cools down the engine, so the diesel combustion generates fewer particulates–and thus fewer nitrogen-oxide emissions.
“It’s really a fantastic chain reaction, all these good things happening at once,” Kruger tells me. He has also successfully introduced natural gas–a ubiquitous and generally cheap fuel–into a diesel-burning engine, which likewise doubles the mileage while slashing emissions. In another system, he uses heat from the diesel engine to vaporize ethanol to the point where it can be injected into the diesel combustion chambers as a booster, with similar emissions-cutting effects.
Goodwin began building on Kruger’s model. In 2005, he set to work adapting his own H1 Hummer to burn a combination of hydrogen and biodiesel. He installed a Duramax [GM's stock large truck diesel engine] in the Hummer and plopped a carbon-fiber tank of supercompressed hydrogen into the bed. The results were impressive: A single tank of hydrogen lasted for 700 miles and cut the diesel consumption in half. It also doubled the horsepower. “It reduces your carbon footprint by a huge, huge amount, but you still get all the power of the Duramax,” he says, slapping the H1 on the quarter panel. “And you can feed it hydrogen, diesel, biodiesel, corn oil–pretty much anything but water.”
The implications are huge. I sure hope the major auto manufacturers push this technology to the mainstream, pronto. Until then, if you own a large vehicle fleet, think about converting it, yourself and financing the project with fuel savings and carbon offset credits (the good kind, where you actually reduce emissions!). As you’ll read, DHL is considering just that.
In related news, researchers at Princeton University (partnered with other institutions),¬† aim to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of jet engines used in aviation.¬† This avenue of research is critical, as aviation is responsible for roughly 2.7 percent of the US’s total greenhouse gas emissions (source: U.S. DOT) Whereas many airlines are making excellent procedural changes (i.e. the EU’s EasyJet.com), these research projects actually seek to a) model the reaction within the jet engine, and b) reformulate jet fuel, itself.
Kudos to the US Air Force and NetJets for funding this vital research.
What is your organization’s climate change strategy?
This article, at HBR’s website, is an excellent starting point for re-thinking the impact of climate change and carbon legislation on your business. From the editors:
In this month‚Äôs Forethought, we’ve invited leading thinkers from business and academia to help our readers address climate issues by framing strategy, strengthening security, shaping policy, protecting reputation, and engaging customers, employees, and markets. This special section provides a hard-nosed look at a tough new environment. There will be winners and losers. Companies that get their strategy right will find vast opportunities to both profit and create social good on a global scale.
- Reprint: F0710A
How will you change your strategy in light of both changes in climate across your supply chain, and changes in regulation and reporting of the carbon footprint of your products and services?
This book is for flawed people (and we are all flawed in one way or another) who are not happy with the way things are and would like to make a difference.
This book is for ordinary people who want to make connections that create extraordinary outcomes.”
So reads the first inside page of this refreshing, accessible and thought-provoking guide for those involved in social change, from social innovators and philanthropists to policy-makers and leaders of socially-conscious corporations. Written by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman & Michael Quinn Patton and published by Random House Canada, Getting to Maybe: how the world is changed is out to do just that, one reader at a time.
What it’s all about
The burning issue that Getting to Maybe addresses is that too many attempts to improve our society, lead by social innovators, usually working in not-for-profit structures and funded by philanthropy, business and government, fail because well-meaning people set out to address symptoms without understanding the behaviour of the larger system. This book introduces a “systems approach” for making change. It does this by focusing on the work of social innovators and the stages they characteristically go through in trying to right a social wrong. Other key players, such as philanthropists, politicians and business leaders, are invited into the narrative to re-think their approaches to social innovation, where appropriate.
Simple and complicated vs. complex
The authors make the point early on that not all problems are the same, and that different classes of problems require different approaches if the social innovator is to have a hope of effecting lasting change.
The three classes of problems are:
simple (baking a cake – quite easily replicable);
complicated (putting a man on the moon – very tricky, but the more you do it, the better you get);
complex (raising a child – just because you successfully raised the first does not mean the same approach will work with the next. It is interactive and ever-changing.)
“Successful social innovation combines all three problems – simple, complicated and complex – but the least understood is the complex. And yet complexity is the most fundamental level when we try to understand how social innovations occur.
Single individuals, single actions and single organizations all play a part, but it is the subtle rules of engagement, between and among the elements, that is the force that seems to give initiatives a life of their own. In other words, complex systems comprise relationships.” – p. 10
They go on to point out the disasters that can occur when complex issues are managed as if merely complicated or even simple, such as with a pharmaceutical approach to mental illness, which ignores the fact that many of the patients are too ill to follow the drug regimens designed to cure them.
Successful social innovators, then, are the ones who can widen their view and study patterns of behaviour in a system, looking for relationship between the elements. They must be prepared for the fact that, as they attempt changes to a system, unpredictable new behaviours and insights will probably emerge that will require them – the innovators themselves - to learn and change as well, in order to advance.
Many case studies are woven throughout the book. Included are new perspectives on widely recognized stories such as Band Aid and Live Aid, celebrity-filled fundraising rock concerts which raised over 60 million pounds in the aftermaths of famine in Ethiopia, and genocide in Rwanda. Less well-known are stories about Brazil’s successful fight against AIDS/HIV, Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy program to eliminate bullying in schools, and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, which provides microloans to groups of impoverished people so they can become self-sufficient. (The Grameen’s founder, Mohamed Yunus, won the 2005 Nobel Prize for his micro-credit approach to alleviating poverty.)
This book traces its roots to 1999, when Dupont Canada was developing its corporate citizenship strategy. Accustomed in their business to taking large innovative leaps, they took up a bold suggestion from consultant, Eric Young to make social innovation itself their cause of choice – to develop tools and perspectives for radical innovation linked to an approach that studies the whole system that gives rise to the problem. Called the Social Innovation Enterprise, the venture spawned Opportunities 2000 (one of the book’s case studies), and in 2002, the McGill-Dupont Social Innovation Think Tank. Getting to Maybe is an outgrowth of the Think Tank’s discussions.
A beautifully-crafted structure
This book does a far better job than most books of its kind in delivering the content because of its structure. From the words and images on the cover, through the design and content of the foreword and body, to the useful notes and index inside the back cover, nothing appears to be without purpose.
Each chapter begins with a quote, poem or passage that beautifully teases out the chapter’s theme. Researching and finding these beautiful and fitting passages is impressive in itself. A few authors, such as Yeats, I recognized, but most were delightfully new to me, and all of the passages caused me to reflect for a moment. Then, the chapter took me quickly to clear, well-told stories that illustrate the key points, ending with tactful but clear how-to principles, in narrative and bullet form, for its various audiences.
Exploring the thinking behind the book.
There are other books on systems thinking, such as Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, which are more sophisticated than this one. Getting to Maybe is pitched at practitioners rather than academics, concentrating on the various stages that social innovators commonly go through in their work.
The chapter on relating to those who hold the money or power in the system to be changed – “Powerful Strangers” – is a very important one. Too often, social innovators do not take the time to understand the powerful person’s motivations (and perhaps, their humanity), the motivations of their funders, whether in government, corporations or private foundations, and what they must do to be credible in the eyes of those funders. They often fail to frame their cause in language that is relevant to the funder’s concerns and goals.
I would also underscore the importance the book places on more effective ways for those who fund social innovation to evaluate success and failure of initiatives to penetrate truly complex issues, especially in the early stages.
“Evaluation, almost always scary, has become a major barrier to social innovation. Premature and sceptical demands for accountability can shut down social innovations just as they’re starting to take off.” – p. 51
So the social innovator, resources already stretched, finds ways to comply with reporting requirements, rather than transparently revealing early failures, even if the lessons learned might lead to future success. The book suggests that developmental evaluation – an approach involving more collaboration and co-exploration – is far more effective, supportive and informative for both the innovator and the funding party.
While the case studies in the book were all apt examples of systems (many elements and forces in play), some did not appear complex, in the ways predicting weather or parenting children are complex. This book is intended as an introduction to systems thinking, and so this is appropriate. Disciplines such as systems thinking and structural dynamics work well in domains where the patterns are knowable, even though cause and effect are separated in space and time. They are not, however, the best tools in the face of true complexity.
The good news is that truly complex issues are not quite as prevalent as the popular business books (Getting to Maybe included) would have us believe. Just as there is a danger in mis-classifying a complex problem as simple, so too, is there a risk of calling something complex that is not – one ends up using the wrong tools for the job. For a more detailed (but still very readable) article on these important distinctions, I would suggest The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world, by C. F. Kurtz and D. J. Snowden. It is free, online from the IBM Systems Journal. (http://www.research.ibm.com/journal/sj/423/kurtz.html)
Living a paradox?
I think the authors unnecessarily mystified and muddied up how the creative process works to orchestrate sustained change, and how structural conflict keeps things as they are. The authors open on the right track when, on page 24, they explain their choice and use of the word, ‘maybe’:
“MAY – possibility, what might be, the essence of intentionality as a vision of what could happen, if only…
BE – state of being, the way things are, presence, reality…”
‘MAY’ is the intended vision, in the future. ‘BE’ is current reality, now. The tension they describe between the two elements is the same dynamic described as creative tension in The Fifth Discipline.
They then describe leaders who focus both on the vision and current reality as “living a paradox”. In delving into the endnotes, it becomes clear that many innovators interviewed might have described it as such, although I contend it is simply a conflict between seeing reality for what it is so one can learn from it, vs. hiding reality to minimize the risk of losing funding over a perceived failure of a program.
It is very important to help the social innovator reframe this concept. At any point in time, a social innovator can become more effective by simultaneously picturing their future vision, comparing it to the relevant current reality, and studying the discrepancy. There is no paradox here – simply a basic, critical skill in the creative process, and in learning.
To augment the valuable approach presented in Getting to Maybe, I would recommend that readers refer to the work of Robert Fritz to learn more about structural dynamics and the creative process. Fritz’s concept of creative tension is introduced in The Fifth Discipline, but I would direct those interested in organizational and systemic change to his book, The Path of Least Resistance for Managers (1999 Berrett-Koehler Publications, ISBN: 1576750655).
Get it. Read it. Change the world.
This book will undoubtedly help social innovators, socially-conscious corporations and philanthropists in their missions. The authors are to be commended for investing in our collective future in this way.
¬© 2007 Gary Ralston
About the author
Gary Ralston is a partner and business consultant at Ralston Consulting Inc., with corporate and non-profit clients across North America. Originally from Vancouver, BC, he now lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and business partner, Ann. Gary would like to thank Bronwyn Drainie, Troy Angrignon and Charles Holmes for their contributions to this review.
From the department of unintended consequences…
It's old news, now, that the US and Canada are shifting daylight savings time, for some good reasons, such as reducing carbon emissions. However, we are also introducing uncertainty into many scheduled, measured, coordinated and logged events for 4 weeks per year for the next few years.
From Verizon Wireless's announcement…
With the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the United States government has established changes to the duration of Daylight Saving Time (DST). Beginning in 2007, DST will now remain in effect each year between the second (2nd) Sunday of March until the first (1st) Sunday of November (e.g., March 11, 2007 through November 4, 2007).
While this change primarily impacts the United States and Canada, it also impacts any users who interact with or send calendar invitations or who are dependent upon date/time calculations with companies and persons within the United States or Canada.
What struck me about this change was the enormous potential for disrupt this presents for businesses who count on knowing what time it is, here and now, related to there. The old pattern of daylight savings time is embedded in millions of electronic devices. In adjusting to the change here, we considered our routers, servers, desktop computers and cellphones (some with TWO patches), GPS units, and any other devices where we count upon accurate logging of now (electronic transactions, phone calls, instant messages, network logs, security camera time stamps, etc.). I wonder at the potential for serious unintended consequences at hospitals, in manufacturing, in air transport, etc.
Also significant in Verizon Wireless's advisory was the fact that you must patch technology in a cascade sequence – from server to desktop to synchronized mobile device – or you risk introducing even more disrupt.
Yet we don't just have ourselves to worry about. We schedule with other businesses and individuals. They all must get their patches applied, and in the right order, so that our calendar and theirs, on servers, computers and phones, agree.
Three pieces of advice – two tactical and one strategic:
- When creating appointments in the “uncertainty zone”, (the two weeks following the second Sunday in March, and the two weeks prior to the first Sunday in November) type the agreed-upon time into the appointment title, and recommend the same for your staff and colleagues – especially those abroad with whom you work. Create an annual recurring reminder so you can remember to do this in October, and next year, as well. That way, if some person or device in the chain slips up, and the 10 am meeting suddenly shifts to 9 or 11 am, you'll have a way to know.
- If you don't already, confirm your appointments by phone the day before.
- Ask your operations, production, security, finance and IT leaders to double-check their processes to ensure that all mission-critical time-keeping hardware, software and firmware has been tested, and if necessary, upgraded or compensated for.
In the following weeks, the unintended short-term costs of this change will become apparent – time will tell.