Thursday, July 7, 2016


An outline:

We know of organisations that want to become more sustainable but don’t know how to approach the challenge, and do the right things in the right way. They are confronted by a veritable maze of approaches, practices, processes and rules. Is this where you are?

WHY businesses should continue stampeding into the sustainability arena has been answered: the fragile and parlous state of the world’s interconnected economies, ecologies and societies; increasing tensions, disruption, migrations and human trafficking; growing resource shortages, ongoing waste, degradation and pollution, depleting resources, continuing climate change …. 

As has WHEN (yesterday!), WHO (all of us), and WHERE (wherever needed, everywhere).

There is less certainty (although no lack of opinion!) about WHAT to do – influenced by the array of players in the game with different interests and viewpoints, a consumerism culture, ignorance of the facts, imbalances between self-interest and the common good …. 

 And precious little has still to be shared on HOW to develop a sustainable organisation.  Here is a proven way forward for you to succeed with your sustainability endeavours:

Learn from what has gone before. From the Inside Out: the human dynamics of sustainability1 presents a model designed to show how we can navigate the maze of sustainability. It is based on solid neuroscience, psychology, sociology, narrative research, behavioural economics and practical business experience. A basic assumption is that organisations only change and become sustainable when a critical mass of people in the organisation change and live and work sustainably.  The model challenges some existing (and interconnected) paradigms. It is really about humanising business.

The model asks you to balance being with doing.  In business we are rewarded for getting things done, managing the urgent, the immediate and the important. As Christopher Jamison points out, “The busy culture is a frame of mind”.
Being busy can be hedonistic and feed our self-importance, allow us to feel good and proud of our contribution, our worth, even our indispensability.2   
Doing needs to be balanced by being.  They are inextricably linked. Who we are determines what we do and the manner in which we do things.  Thich Nhat Hanh (Nobel Peace prize nominee and pre-eminent Buddhist scholar and author) reinforces this wisdom: “There are two things: to be and to do. Don’t think too much about to do—to be is first.   To be peace.  To be joy.  To be happiness. And then to do joy, to do happiness—on the basis of being”.3 It’s more about being the answer than having the answers.

Too many still operate at the level of mindlessness.  A number of organisations have seen the benefit of mindfulness and introduced training in order to derive benefit from calmer, less stressed employees (well - being) and from work habits that are less prone to distraction, enable focus and lead to better performance. That’s where they’ve stopped.
A handful of pioneering leaders and their organisations have kept up with research findings and embraced mindfulness because of its direct impact over time on sustainability, for example:

·                                      COMPASSION. If care and compassion is absent, people will not seriously act to sustain and improve the lots of others, nor the environment.  Keltner has pointed out that we actually suffer moral injury, reduced happiness and lowered resilience if we are NOT compassionate. His extensive research exposes our limiting beliefs about power, and shows clearly how compassion and selflessness enable influence – both direct and indirect, and invoke followership.4 Compassion produces positive power. Famous brain surgeon Henry Marsh exclaims:  “What are we if we don’t try to help others? We’re nothing. Nothing at all”. 5

·                                            ETHICS. Ethics systems that are primarily rules-based fail. The psychology and sociology of ethics bear powerfully on maturity and how people behave in ethical situations. The mindful person is aware and discerning, sees the bigger picture, identifies issues clearly, and acts courageously irrespective of negative pressures arising from the organisational context.

·                             PURPOSE. Amanda Sinclair states that “Purpose and values are central to mindfulness. Almost inevitably, practising mindfulness calls leaders (and each of us) to ask how they are spending their energy and their lives”.6   Defining and activating purpose has become all the rage for organisations wishing to be seen to be a player in the sustainability arena. Motive is key here.  Many see it as being good for the Brand, good for attracting and retaining talent, boosting profitability.7 Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose Officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers has reported on a survey they conducted which revealed that most CEOs define purpose as being about growth and innovation” but “employees said it’s simply about having a north star that will create meaning in their job”.8  Unresolved, inauthentic motive will lead to failure. Jamison speaks eloquently and scarily of         our consuming culture and of Brands masking their true intent: “ … they give people a higher purpose’ through their brand. The companies may congratulate themselves that they are serving a higher purpose but this is basically the commercial exploitation of  spirituality”…….  and  “ … has  a corrosive effect on our understanding of personal identity and on our sense of the sacred. Even our souls are now consumerised, and marketing is destroying people’s spiritual imagination ….. great corporations now inhabit our imagination, the place where greed is generated”.2  

More and more our lives seem to be driven by time pressures and we are preoccupied with short term needs, requirements and distractions. We battle to determine the impact of our current behaviour on our future. We need to “live in the present moment and revere tradition, but create the future”.9   We need hope, a meaning and a future to hang on to when the going gets tough. Frankl draws on his Oswieciem (Auschwitz) concentration camp experiences during the 2nd world war to explain, “Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal”. 10  

Leaving a legacy for future generations is another compelling reason for focusing on the future when thinking about sustainability. “It will take true wisdom to create a new future for ourselves and for our children’s children”.11

And evidence grows that the farther into the future a brain can see itself functioning the more competent that brain is at handling current complexity, juggling multiple responsibilities and integrating tasks.12
Author Neil Gaiman offers three prompts to help us address what he terms “the world of not-yet”:

What if?
If only …
If this goes on13

The mind’s purpose in making a decision is generally to weigh up the value of the choices before it. The greater the number of choices, the more obscure the outcomes of a choice or the less rewarding and immediately gratifying a choice is, then the harder the choice is to make. This becomes evident in thinking about choices that enhance sustainable behaviours. These choices tend to be complex, and invariably contain uncertainty in their outcome. Therefore there is a strong need to make good decisions to enhance sustainable behaviour”.1

Decision making has always been difficult and influenced by a host of human frailties and fallibilities. The days of making expedient decisions in isolation to serve one’s own interests only - are fast disappearing. The new name of the game is decision-making that requires pause (deeper reflection), enhanced understanding, is inclusive and collaborative, takes place within a purpose and virtues-based framework, and where the chosen route is robust in the longer term.

If organisational change occurs when enough people in the organisation change, then it makes sense for as much of the change as possible to be steered by these people.  With traditional change, transition, transformation, regeneration initiatives, processes, programmes, activities and management this does not happen for most of the time. Hence we advocate highly inclusive, organic processes and methods (using insights from behaviour economics, narrative research, neuroscience) such as are outlined in From the Inside Out.

Examples include:

·        Eliciting high engagement and ownership by means of story listening (for example, anecdote research, carbon conversations, metaphor elicitation, free association connected to sustainability images …).
·                  Designing bottom-up pledges, supported by shared, agreed behaviour indicators and the application of ‘nudge theory’ (again designed by staff).
·                                                  Using a ‘laboratory’ approach to business process redesign along the entire business chain, which is done by the people who do the actual work. 

This chart captures the desired movement in approach from current practise (in white) to go beyond and include the components shown in black:

Clearly these required shifts address beliefs, values and behaviours. They alter who we are and how we do things. They result in culture change and personal transformation.

Co-incidentally the ‘father’ of learning organisations and a pioneer in the area of ‘presencing’ in business, Peter Senge (together with his co-authors) has identified three core capabilities of ‘system leaders14.  These capabilities fit closely with the From the Inside Out psychology of sustainability model:

       Deep, shared reflection is a critical step in enabling groups of organizations and individuals to actually “hear” a point of view different from their own, and to appreciate emotionally as well as cognitively each other’s reality” .  BEING MINDFUL
       Co-creating the future …. This shift involves not just building inspiring visions but facing difficult truths about the present reality and learning how to use the tension between vision and reality to inspire truly new approaches”.  BEING FUTURE ORIENTED
       Seeing the larger system to enable “collaborating organizations to jointly develop solutions not evident to any of them individually”.  NEW PARADIGM DECISION MAKING

Senge et al say that “… much of this work is still relatively unknown or known only superficially to those engaged in collaborative, systemic change efforts”.   NEW STYLE BEHAVIOUR CHANGE 


In this story related by the 4th Century BC Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu1:

  •            who is the antagonist and who is the protagonist?
  •         is it fair to juxta-position exploitive machine-age thinking  and sustainability thinking?
  •        how much of ourselves is deeply invested in our work (physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual)?
  •    how could the opposing views in the story be bridged by employing mindfulness, future orientation, collaborative decision making and readiness to change?
  •          are we brought face to face with what Richard Rohr terms the two halves of life, the first being about the performance principle and the second about wisdom?15  (“In the second half of life, you start to understand that life is not only about doing; it's about being”).16
  •          is there any scope to go beyond ‘maintain’ and ‘sustain’, and thrive, ‘attain’ new heights?

Traveller Tzu-gung encounters an old man struggling ineffectively to irrigate his vegetable garden.

Tzu-gung said, “There is a way whereby you can irrigate a hundred ditches in one day, and whereby you can do much with little effort. You take a wooden lever, weighted at the back and light in front. In this way you can bring up water so quickly that it just gushes out. This is called a draw-well”.

Anger showed in the old man’s face, and he said, “I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the striving of his soul, which does not agree with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things; I am ashamed to use them”.

The booklet is available from


1. Williams, Graham with Rosenstein, David  From The Inside Out: the human dynamics of sustainability  2016
2. Jamison, Abbot Christopher    Finding Happiness: monastic steps for a fulfilling life    Phoenix  2009
3. Miller, Andrea Thich Nhat Hanh : Be Beautiful, Be Yourself   Lion’s Roar June 2016
4. Keltner, Dacher Dr. The Power Paradox: how we gain and lose influence Penguin Press 2016 
5.  Marsh, Henry Do No Harm: stories of life, death & brain surgery Thomas Dunne Books 2014
6.  Sinclair, Amanda  Possibilities, Purpose and Pitfalls: Insights from introducing mindfulness to leaders Journal of Spirituality, Leadership and Management, 2015, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 3-11.
7. Williams, E. Freya  Green Giants: how smart companies turn sustainability into billion-dollar businesses  AMACOM  2015
8. Hower, Mike  Lessons from Spirituality, Nature and Business on the Meaning of Purpose and How to Activate It  Highlights From Sustainable Brands San Diego 2016  (June)
9.  Lowney, Chris Pope Francis : Why He Leads the Way He Leads : Lessons from the first Jesuit Pope  Loyola Press a Jesuit Ministry, Chicago  2013
10. Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning Basic Books NY 1985
11. Miller, William C and Miller, Debra R   Designing Professional Development for the Knowledge Era Wisdom Leadership: Exploring its Relation to Spirituality  A Think Piece prepared by for the TAFE NSW International Centre for Vocational Education and Training Teaching and Learning April, 2006
12. Lynch, Dudley and Kordis, Paul L. Strategy of the Dolphin: scoring a win in a chaotic world Fawcett Columbine, 1990
13. Gaiman, Neil Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, and What Science Fiction Is and Does, in The View from the Cheap Seats: selected nonfiction  Harper Collins Publishers  2016
14. Senge, Peter; Hamilton, Hal & Kania, John The Dawn of System Leadership Stanford Social Innovation Review Winter 2015
15. Rohr, Richard  In Need of Guidance  Weekly Meditation (Two Halves of Life, Week 1)  June 16, 2016
16. Rohr, Richard  Summary  Weekly Meditation (Two Halves of Life, Week 1)  June 18, 2016

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