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An Intro to ThriveAbility:
The Next Stage of Development for Sustainability

You all know the classic quip for our field:John: “My marriage is sustainable.”Jane: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that…”You get it: The notion of “sustainability,” while vitally necessary, inspires enthusiasm like a hairshirt. What we humans really want to do is thrive! The problem sustainability confronts is that the human pursuit of thriving (as currently enacted) wreaks havoc — we overshoot planetary boundaries and erode social foundations.

You all know the classic quip for our field:

John: “My marriage is sustainable.”
Jane: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that…”

You get it: The notion of “sustainability,” while vitally necessary, inspires enthusiasm like a hairshirt. What we humans really want to do is thrive! The problem sustainability confronts is that the human pursuit of thriving (as currently enacted) wreaks havoc — we overshoot planetary boundaries and erode social foundations.

And despite several thousand organizations and investors following ESG (Environmental Social Governance) guidelines, the “E” goals and performance fall short of the science, the “S” goals and performance lag even further, and the “G” goals and performance are generally not fit to task in promoting a regenerative and inclusive economy.

Enter ThriveAbility.

At its simplest, ThriveAbility reframes the hairshirt aura of sustainability by focusing on the positive benefits of collectively living within our means (or, in geek-speak, operating within the carrying capacities of capitals). ThriveAbility does this by weaving two additional dimensions into the sustainability equation that remedy the Social and Governance weak spots, while catalysing context-based environmental performance:

ThriveAbility’s secret sauce is to mesh these interlocking dynamics. Focusing solely on closing the Sustainability Gap (as many of us have been doing for decades) has not solved our problems – we need to simultaneously transform our underlying mental models to liberate ourselves from frameworks that lock in unsustainability. And solutions need to migrate readily across organizational silos and permeate sectors.

In other words, we need to address the nested Three Gap Problem (Sustainability Gap; Organizational Gap; Socio-Cultural Gap) with an integral approach.

The Three Gap Problem

Let me repeat: with an integral approach, which harnesses the synergies between solutions in ways that unleash a host of positive opportunities. “Wicked problems” require “wicked solutions” — namely, solutions that take into account the interdependencies of complex systems. The key is to replace interlocking dynamics that exacerbate undesirable outcomes, with dynamic interrelationships that positively reinforce desirable outcomes.

To do this, ThriveAbility closes all three gaps simultaneously by plotting them on three axes, to track how development on one axis affects development along the other axes. The goal is to drive delta — or positive change — in ways that trigger tipping points of progress.

The ThriveAbility Delta Pyramid

A few words about each axis:

  • The Sustainability (Z) Axis focuses on the technical aspect of collective impact within bounded systems. We know empirically that business-as-usual is unsustainable, both ecologically and socially. So the Z Axis measures progress toward operating within thresholds that divide sustainability from unsustainability in social and ecological systems. In other words, the Sustainability Axis is our thermometer of physical health.
  • The Organizational (Y) Axis measures how sustainability scales up. It tracks the expansion of sustainable attributes within and across an organization, and an industry, and ultimately, a sector. At the organizational level, it surveys 95 attributes as a barometer of where companies stand on the continuum from business-as-usual through incremental improvement to sustainability and beyond — net positive and ultimately gross positive impacts (or what we call thriveable!) The assessment also steers organizations toward catalysing the kinds of breakthrough innovation needed to achieve ThriveAbility.
  • The Socio-Cultural (X) Axis promotes shifts in mindsets, focusing primarily on leaders who exemplify positive change and influence transformation throughout their organizations and across their sectors. It uses time-tested self-survey tools that prompt individuals to reflect on their progress through developmental stages to second-order abilities to navigate the complexities inherent in today’s — and tomorrow’s — world.

Sustainability, Scaling, and Shifting minds and paradigms — these are the interlocking goals of ThriveAbility. And the ThriveAbility Foundation team has been advancing these objectives, fully articulated in our new book, A Leader’s Guide to ThriveAbility, through a series of co-creative virtual dialogues on Convetit with collaborators in our ecosystem:

  • The first on the transition from Integrated Thinking to Integral Thinking, with input from GRI co-founder Allen White and former CEO Ernst Ligteringen, IIRC Chair Mervyn King, CEO Paul Druckman, and Interface Head of Sustainable Development Geanne Van Arkel;
  • The second on the necessity of Leadership and Cultural Shifts, with commentary by The Big Pivot author Andrew Winston, Donella Meadows Institute Executive Director Marta Ceroni, Kaleidoscope Ventures founder Wayne Visser, IPCC scientist Karen O’Brien, and Telefonica Global Head of Organizational Development & Corporate Culture Alberto Andreu Pinillos.
  • The third on How “Doughnut” Goals Can Create ThriveAbility with participation by Doughnut Economics author Kate Raworth, Global Footprint Network president Mathis Wackernagel, Center for Sustainable Organizations Founder Mark McElroy, Pax World SVP for Sustainable Investing Julie Fox Gorte, IIRC Technology Program Lead Jyoti Banerjee, and Preventable Surprises CEO Raj Thamotheram.

In the next article in this series, we explore the ThriveAbility Foundation’s unique governance structure, and its Six-Capital Equation for dynamically balancing impacts and triggering breakthrough innovation.