Organizational Change
Punks, Wonks & Breakout Strategies for Sustainability Innovation

Innovation. We love it! Especially in the trending world of sustainability.

And rightly so: The potential impact and influence of sustainability innovation in the shaping of a more positive human existence is immutable and immeasurable.

Innovation’s role in reinventing and reimagining the way the domestic, private and public sectors use, reuse and replenish the limited resources we have at our disposal is critical to our survival as a race. So anything that inspires us to escalate our ability to innovate, whether that might be of the incremental, process or radical kind, deserves all the help it can get. We cannot really afford for sustainability innovation to stall or fail — but it does so, all too often.

Failure is of course an occupational hazard in the innovation department: an almost welcome metric. If you’re not failing, you are most probably not trying hard enough to create meaningful breakthroughs in unchartered territory. But often the reason for innovation faltering is not quite so grand. And all too human: stakeholder conflict, lack of communication or collaboration, or simply personal agendas and self-interested gerrymandering. So the question recently raised was this: how do we make sustainability innovation more, well, sustainable?

The people involved seemed to fall into two broad camps of behaviour and attitude. It was this simple observation that formed the basis of a recent workshop on Sustainability Innovation that Thomas Kolster of Goodvertising and I hosted at Sustainable Brands ‘14 London entitled "A Game of Two Halves"; the workshop endeavoured to use the two attitudinal behavior types we observed to set up a simple, playful framework in which we might help re-inspire and reenergize the process of sustainability innovation: most pointedly in regards to human behaviour and modes of thinking.

The inspiration for these two types and their game of two halves was drawn from anecdotal evidence, conversation and a little light stakeholder research.

The world of Sustainability seems to be populated by a kaleidoscopic constituency of vital minds:

  • the green activist agitators, ice-breakers & policy-shakers of the likes of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace
  • the scientists, conservationists and behaviouralists from the myriad NGOs advising and supporting communities across the globe
  • the sustainability policy and regulatory advisors, architects and engineers who operate at the point where the private and public sectors collide
  • the particular and labyrinthine coder programmer and systems minds of IT and rock ‘n roll tech geekdom
  • the lateral and populist storytellers and communications professionals who advise both corporates and government on sustainability communication strategies and campaigning
  • the HR professionals who are increasingly being placed at the heart of burgeoning social programmes designed to evolve from the inside out and the ground up of large corporates and public sector organisations
  • the corporate actors driving sustainability agendas to improve performance, mitigate risk, attract investment or embrace social responsibility.

Many of these actors and agents are rarely advocates of an over-simplified Either/Or picture of the world, and most have traces of both polarities in them.

But it did seem that as things start to go wrong or seize up there is a human tendency to fall into one or other of the camps — and revert to the type closest to one’s own nature.

Thomas and I chose to identify and explore these Either/Or moments and the attitudes and behaviours that accompany them in a couple of ways. The first was that of Venus & Mars, with Thomas viewing the two types through the lens of couples’ counselling, viewing the barriers to innovative sustainability thinking and doing as requiring the navigational and brokering skills usually deployed by professionals trying to help couples climb out of the morass of familiarity and contempt — someone adept and experienced at showing warring and stagnating couples how to embrace the best of each other.

With this in mind, we asked people a simple question: What is the greatest barrier to sustainability innovation?

We collected some answers from people in the room. We then asked them to define what they felt might be the best solution to those problems. We collected these.

And then we rolled in a rainbow grenade to see if we could unlock people’s minds further — taking the view that, as well as the innate issues of intimate self-realisation to which Thomas had alluded were some more extant behavioural traits that we might explore and play with to help innovation on its way.

And I chose to label those traits as Punk & Wonk — another simple, playful way of creating a tension and point/counterpoint framework in which to exercise the innovation process to create breakouts and breakthroughs in stagnant thinking.

Punk celebrates the liberation of explosive dynamism and chaotic fluidity; Wonk, that of incremental revelation and structured illumination.

I believe that somewhere between their poles — between the anxiety-inducing anarchy of blowing stuff up and the pointillist particularity or relentless rigour — lies a resilience strategy for those embarking on a process of sustainability innovation: A potential answer to sustaining sustainability innovation.

I used the collaboration of David Bowie and Brian Eno as an example of how even the most complementary and inventive minds sometimes need help, to be compelled to take a different view to break through blocks and walls in their own and other’s heads.

Bowie — the master of relentless reinvention, the punk genius of many personas and faces — and Eno, the musical scientist and king of algorithmic cadence, utilized the inspiration of Oblique Strategies — a set of obtuse cards devised by Eno and Peter Schmidt — to break their own creative deadlocks in the studio.

I asked people to envisage that we might create our own set of Breakout Strategies for Sustainability Innovation in much the same way, using the dualities of either Venus & Mars or Punks & Wonks to aid that inspiration.

We then asked the participants in the room to take one of the solutions we had identified and one of the traits — preferably the one least like themselves — and see if the application of a Punk or Wonk mindset had helped them see anything differently.

I will leave the rest to David Harding-Brown in his write-up of the session — far more complete and objective as an observer than either Thomas or I would be.

What we have left is a charming and playful set of inspirations rooted both in Punk and Wonk perspectives and some hybrids to help people in the firestorm of sustainability innovation.

At some point, everyone needs to break out of their hole and reignite their minds to re-inspire the innovation that just might stop us all going up in a plume of consumption smoke!


This post first appeared on the Thin Air Factory blog on November 21, 2014.


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