Organizational Change
Striving for Future-Fitness:
A Lesson from the Suffragettes

Societal expectations shift incessantly, like stones on a beach. Some ideas ripple gently across our collective consciousness, leaving barely a trace, while others swell and gather momentum, swelling into waves capable of dislodging the largest rocks. Established norms, which until moments before seemed immutable, are swept away.

On February 6th, 1918, the Suffragettes won the right for women in the UK to vote. Not all women — it took another decade for this particular rock to right itself — but one hundred years ago today was the moment that the wave came crashing inexorably down.

As recent headlines testify, securing the right to vote was only one step on the journey toward a truly equitable society. But it was a significant one, and there have been many others. No one in their right mind would today argue that it is acceptable for companies to put their employees in harm’s way, to dump toxic waste in rivers, or to factor skin colour into decisions regarding worker compensation. Yet it was not so long ago that these, too, were established norms.

What does all this have to do with future-fitness, and with companies? In a word, everything. We must rapidly and radically change how we do business if we are to usher in a Future-Fit Society — one that is environmentally restorative, socially just, and economically inclusive. Pursuing best practice within an unsustainable system does nothing to challenge existing norms. Any company that believes its long-term success demands nothing more than being the least bad among its peers is doomed.

To address the systemic challenges that we as a species face — from climate change to water scarcity, from biodiversity loss to poverty — we must all seek to make waves.

On February 6th, 2118, the only thing we can be sure of is that the world will be a very different place. If we all act now, perhaps a hundred years from today, our great grandchildren will look back and be as perplexed about our own norms — the burning of fossil fuels, the notion of the one percent, the over-harvesting of natural resources — as we find ourselves today, when we think back to our own great, great-grandmothers, who had no voice in shaping their future.

We might think of today’s most progressive companies as the suffragettes of sustainability. By actively seeking to disrupt their own business models in pursuit of a better future, they are transforming the very norms that lesser companies are still clinging to. And in doing so they are turning the tide, not waiting to be drowned by it.


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