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Organizational Change
On 40 Years Watching the Sustainable Business Field

The second of a three-part proposal for using sustainability to recharge America's problem-solving. Read part one.

As I approach the 40-year mark (no, the sustainable business field isn’t that old, but I’m counting poking-and-prodding prep time in those early, mostly barren and lonely MBA years), I wanted to reflect and offer some suggestions, not so much to the field at large, but to its emerging leaders — those already bending rules in the “Purpose,” “Business-as-an-Agent-of-World-Benefit,” “Values,” UN SDGs and “Context” wings. Of course, potential leaders within the now-conventional sustainable business field are welcome to listen in.

These pioneers are now making some headway towards mainstream relevance. But we need to try harder to avoid common one-step-forward/half-step-back change patterns. I continue to see unnecessarily self- or culturally imposed constraints on potential effectiveness because of not questioning enough of our assumptions. And in the last few years I’ve seen a possible good news/bad news result: mid-20s to early-30s graduates of some prominent green MBA/Masters Programs in good positions, and who with their LEED and GRI certifications are a step beyond their generational predecessors, but who have “settled.” They routinely follow old-line organizational procedures, and seem to have given up on transformational change.

As some examples, I’m still not seeing enough realization that we’re going to have to learn our way to sustainability, and therefore humility and curiosity are acceptable personality traits. There’s not enough boldness to raise, and comfort to discuss, some difficult topics within our business organizations. These include: ethics that are not yet being forced on you, state and national policy and politics, gray areas, uncertainty, and complexity. We don’t often challenge organizations to leave their comfort zones. We don’t explain systems thinking, one of our powerful tools, very well. Our communications field-influenced work doesn’t always ask “What’s special about sustainability” that might not apply anywhere else? All the writing about the importance of innovation doesn’t go far enough to ask about lurking but lethal “innovation killers” outside of the main, usually technical, areas getting the attention. The take-down of “common sense” as an unquestioned virtue by the contrarian field of behavioral economics, such as the primacy of rationality and its long-held but mistaken separation from emotions in our decision-making, are not appreciated.

Everyday references to business in the media, as in “business is supporting the rollback of environmental regulations,” or even just routine single-bottom-line messages, are not commonly refuted with counter-examples offered by groups such as Ceres and the American Sustainable Business Council, or the TBL concept. Challenge those conventional wisdoms, too.

We seem content with success in filling old occupational titles, and not fully exploring and building on new ones, such as Danone’s “Chief Manifesto Catalyst,” Ben & Jerry’s “Activism Manager,” Volans’ “Chief Pollinator,” Google’s “Design Ethicist and Product Philosopher.” Our Green MBA programs don’t seem to want to tell students, at least those who are open to hearing it, that they’re going to have to invent their roles in the field and redefine them as they go.

Examples of courage are still rare and this trait doesn’t even appear in lists of what we tell students to cultivate. I’ve often written about the too-easy acceptance of the purported objectivity and supremacy of data and metrics, rather than using them as tools in the pursuit of sustainability.

I’ve long noted a superficial use of what should be one of our most treasured words - “community” - as actual better performance by sustainability practitioners compared to their non-sustainable world peers is barely detectable. Ask, for instance, do we routinely respond to emails or messages on our company’s “Contact” sites? Do we get back to people when we say we will? Do we play fair when we compete for contracts? Do we cover each other’s backs when one of us goes out on a limb and it doesn’t go so well? Are we treating each other within the field the way we would want to be treated?

And now the same thing is happening with another potential treasure - “transformation” - which is cavalierly being thrown around. With some exceptions, the differences between it and its apparent opposite, “incremental,” are also hard to perceive.

“Diversity” programs, while well-intended, totally miss overgeneralizations about, and show no empathy towards, white men, who are apparently all the same. Their fears of reverse discrimination and possibly how to address it almost never come up.

While I see some advantages, I’m not totally comfortable with the swing to, and especially the conformity around, positive psychology and the “flourishing” or “thriving” themes that seek to replace the “sustainability” term. I just heard a lecture on survivalism from the “Transition” wing of the sustainability field – not a lot of flourishing there. I’m too aware of the gloomy yet prominent environmental writers, Elizabeth Kolbert and Derrick Jensen, who stunningly offer no hope. And while I have problems with those extremes, too, we cannot simply ignore these perspectives.

Finally, while we’ve heard the message we need to learn to understand and talk to the Trump voter, we’re only at the very beginning of figuring out how (or haven’t yet decided that we truly need to). Doing so will require a new attitude and perhaps skillsets.

So as not to fall into the glass-half-full and no-hope traps myself, I’ll end more positively and make a few more suggestions, including reframing what’s on many minds into a “lemons into lemonade” opportunity.

I’m seeing and recently reviewed reports and articles from a growing number of consultants and foundations who are telling business what the latter may not want to hear. It is no longer so rare. And, at least when I’ve seen them do it, they are not getting hit for it.

In your UN SDGs or related pursuits, don’t not pursue mainstream companies from whom you wouldn’t necessarily expect positive results. They might be ready to show some “Principle,” too. I showed many examples in a three-part series last year.

At the next sustainable business conference you attend, put the smartphone down a few times, look for someone you don’t know whom you ordinarily wouldn’t talk to, go up to them and ask: “What’s working for you here, and what isn’t?” Your new friend might have something on their mind that you need to hear.

Finally, if the leading edge of the sustainable business field plays its cards right, learns and revises quickly as it goes, and brings along the rest of the field, with a lot of luck, the next potentially very scary four years can actually be an opportunity to begin to displace “conventional” business-as-usual with a new business-as-usual: “Business as an Agent of World Benefit.”

Part three: A review of the social cost of carbon

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