10 steps toward organizational sustainability

fishbowl
Author and consultant, Katrin Muff, shares an inspirational story from a recent day she spent facilitating an organization’s shift toward embracing sustainability and shared values.

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read the previous post here.

What does it take to get an engineering company to embrace their care for a better world? Is it possible to provide access to the deeper meaning of sustainability to those who define it as either one-dimensional economic long-term survival, or as a predominantly ecological issue?

These were my questions as I prepared for my consulting day with a medium-sized traditional Swiss engineering company. The sustainability-fluent CEO had invited me to lead a workshop with his senior team, including the board, in a first conversation towards formulating a vision 2030 for a company that, in his view, had embrace sustainability. I am sharing here the step-by-step process of that very positive one-day workshop.

The design of the day involved some pre-work for the participants to enable me to ascertain the baseline from which we were working. At the same time I provided an accessible definition and framework of business sustainability to set the foundation on which they could build a common new language. The True Business Sustainability Typology developed by Thomas Dyllick and myself and produced into a convenient six-minute film came in handy (https://youtu.be/AEFqUh4PMmI). I asked them to complete a survey, which consisted of the following questions:

  • Question 1: What does sustainability mean for you? How would you have defined it before watching the video? What changed after the video? For you, what is sustainability and what is it not? (open ended response)
  • Question 2: How clear is it for you how your company might live true business sustainability? (multiple answers, including: crystal clear; I see possibilities; I have mostly questions; I have some concerns; I see a contradiction; I am open and look forward)
  • Question 3: Which sustainability problems touch you most / are a priority in your life? (multiple choice from a selection of 24 sustainability issues picked from the Gap Frame tool that translates the SDGs into a country-by-country measure)
  • Question 4: What do you expect from a whole day sustainability workshop at your company and what is important for you to say upfront? (open ended question)

In my preparation, I analyzed their responses to understand where they stood and what concerns, issues and hopes they brought along and I developed brief personal profiles containing my impressions (and a photo). Since I had never met the team, I grouped them into categories that would allow me to frame their anticipated worldviews and perspectives, in the hope to anticipate their attitude and responses during the day. Most importantly, it allowed me to be lightheartedly prepared for those from whom I might have to expect resistance.

The workshop was designed to be varied, encouraging listening, thinking and talking, and shifting between plenum, individual and small-group work; it included standing sessions with circle meetings, peer walks, silent personal reflection, presentations, group work and, of course, a bit of physical activity to keep the body, mind and heart active and involved. The CEO’s opening words, which I had asked him to hold standing around a lunch table, were to the point and honest; he finished by saying: “Katrin, you need to understand that everybody is a bit afraid of you right now. We never stood together like this to start a day and when we look to the room where we work, we see a circle of chairs with some funny decoration in the middle”. I smiled it off and immediately switched to everybody doing some straightforward physical activities to re-connect their brains, awaken the body and overcome the awkward feeling by doing awkward things! From there on, the day began to bloom.

Let us look at the journey we took together and how this may be helpful to you too, whether you are a business leader or a strategic consultant.

  1. The personal passion of everyone (circle seating): each participant brought a personal item in response to the question: “If I had a magic wand, what is the one thing I would change in the world?” This round of sharing and story-telling set the tone of the day and the level of depth and engagement in the conversation. It allowed clarification of the term ‘sustainability’, including its less obvious facets, and brought everybody on board by revealing their deep personal connection with one or more sustainability issues.
  2. How ready is your organization for change (open circle seating): each participant was asked to assess where they placed their organization on a scale where 1 was ‘incremental change’ and 2 was ‘quantum leap’. The discussion revealed that the change readiness of individuals was higher than the change readiness of the organization. By introducing my inner-outer world model that shows the interconnection between personal development towards responsible leadership and organizational development towards sustainable business, we had a way to frame the discussion; we highlighted the danger that can arise when organizational stability and comfort slows of extinguishes individual initiative. I used Cameron & Quinn’s Competing Values Framework to direct the thought process into a simple question for assessment: is the organization more internally or externally focused, and is the organization more focused on stability or on flexibility? Together, in an open discussion, we assessed the company’s journey and identified future areas of focus if, indeed, the organization were to embrace a quantum leap.
  3. What are the biggest sustainability issues in Switzerland (lecture): In 30 minutes I explained sustainability, starting with the WEF Global Risks Report on which sustainability issues keeps CEOs awake at night, and outlining Rockström’s planetary boundaries and Oxfam’s social foundation, which Raworth used to develop the safe operating space for humanity. I then introduced the N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Gap Frame (a project led by Business School Lausanne), which is a translation of the SDGs into a relevant normative framework applicable not only to the Global South but to every single country. We looked at Switzerland and highlighted five or six of the most burning issues in the domains of environment, society, economy and governance. I ended by sharing their own answers to my pre-workshop survey (see question 3 above), allowing them to connect their personal passion and cares to wider issues of concern within Switzerland (the country their business operates in).
  4. What does sustainability mean for your company (world café): we used four relevant topics from the balanced scorecard the company uses and spent an hour investigating how an outside-in approach, borrowed from the True Business Sustainability Typology (Dyllick & Muff) might inspire entirely new strategic business opportunities for them. This process allows for capturing current product and service improvements, as well as more creative reflection upon which of the company’s core competencies might contribute to solving sustainability issues in their geographic region. This was a good moment to integrate social aspects into the ‘employee’ dimension and magic new ideas arose regarding, for example, integration across generations and cultural groups. Each group reported back and the follow-on discussion provided an incredibly rich tapestry for future strategic options.

    km-blog-tableDyllick-Muff (2016): True Business Sustainability

  1. What does this mean for me? What opportunities open up? What is new? (partner walk): participants met in pairs and went for a digestive after lunch walk investigating the questions, allowing them to select among more personal dimensions or discussing concrete business insights. They were equipped with the instruction to focus on listening and were requested not to interrupt or comment on what their partner said. They came back to the room with great energy and a good connection both within and among themselves. The condensation process had started.
  2. What insights have I gained? (silent individual reflection space): without any sharing, each partner was invited to find a comfortable space with his journal and to reflect quietly on what he had learned so far during the day and the insights gained, either personally or for the company. The palpable energy in the room was one of high concentration and creative depth. We had prepared a large wall with paper where partners wrote down their company insights for others to read and share. Rather than debriefing in the plenum, I invited all participants simply to read the comments of their colleagues.
  3. What might be a sustainability vision for our company? (fishbowl set-up): the three ‘elders’ present (board members and CEO) were invited to have a conversation among themselves in an inner circle of chairs with the rest of the management team seated in a circle around them. For half an hour, the participants held the space for a deepening and soul-searching conversation among the most senior partners. The level of attention and listening was most intense in the best of ways. In a follow-on 30 minutes, the outside circle – consisting of the slightly younger management team – were invited to reflect on what they heard and what questions and answers emerged for them. The profound, open and honest, critical and daring discussion showed how the existing company culture had already prepared the team to engage in such conversations. Entirely new ideas arose, including the need for playfulness and prototyping, some conversations also queried many of the initial unquestioned assumptions. We were suddenly at a point where we had more questions than answers. The potential was raw; we were further from where we wanted to be and not quite where the CEO had hoped. This was a critical point to assess how to embrace this potential and capture its value while it was so ripe.
  4. What does sustainability mean for your company? (assigned small teams): the break allowed me to reflect on what was next needed and to amend my agenda. I replaced an exercise that I had pre-agreed with the CEO, with an exercise that would allow everybody to walk away with clarity, while also capturing the value that had been generated thus far. This would enable discussions within small teams to arrive at a concrete outcome that could be shared. To add a notion of playfulness, I suggested that the team that defined sustainability for the company using the least amount of words would win. That turned creativity on! On another wall of paper, the teams designed their ideas, and subsequently pitched their slogans – some of which were pure magic. In the process, they redefined not only the company but also themselves, both individually and collectively. I had to entirely redesign the closing hour of the day.
  5. What more is needed to make this day complete? (standing bar talk): rather than coming up with a plan for the next hour, I decided to ask participants what they each needed to leave with a feeling of accomplishment. The answers varied from a) immediate next steps for action, b) practical application of these great slogans (step 8), c) how does this translate to our plan for the next year, or three years, and d) I want you to give us a lecture on the True Business Sustainability Typology (the exercise I had pre-agreed with the CEO, which I couldn’t ignore!). While I asked each of them to note what they would do a) the next day at work and b) the next week at work, I prepared a short guide as to how to translate the session’s outcomes into the next one and three years, as well as a suggested path on including the rest of the company. The condensation process was achieved when each participant committed their next actions to the rest of the team. My short and medium-term suggestions focused on attending to where energy flows with ease rather than pursuing paths of high resistance (the philosophy of water) and to attend to the opportunities they would attract as a result of this new level of shared. And, of course, I gave my short 10-minute lecture on true business sustainability, using it to further anchor what we had worked on all day.
  6. How do you feel as we leave this workshop? (circle seating): every participant closed the day with some words on how he had begun the day and how he was leaving it. I have never experienced a more energized, inspired and motivated group of engineers in my life! What a humbling moment to be a part of.

These 10 steps are by no means the only way for a company to begin its shared journey of anchoring strategy and vision in the face of global challenges, but they show one way that worked. I am keen to see many companies succeed in this deep change. Kathy Miller in her last blog examined the different mental models that change agents can have and explained that, depending on which model they hold, their approaches will differ significantly. In many ways the above workshop was a means to get a change process going, only. An initial step in a much longer journey.

If you are interested in learning more about these processes, methodologies, and tools, please get in touch via katrin.muff@bsl-lausanne.ch.

The images used in this blog are copyright of Katrin Muff.

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