So You Want to Change the World? (Part 1)

12/12/2016 12:13 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2016

I recently engaged in a dialogue with Masters students from the University of Waterloo, Canada, on the topics of sustainable business and transformational change. In this article, I would like to share some of their questions and my answers.

What have you found to be the most effective ways, in terms of both speed and impact, to go from thinking to action in a business context?

The most effective methods I have found are:

  1. Find competitors or benchmarks that are moving ahead of you. Appealing to companies' competitive nature is often a good way to get action. I saw this first hand when I produced the first ranked benchmarks of companies on sustainability in South Africa many years ago. And there are great cases - like Timberland (vs Nike), Seventh Generation (vs SC Johnson) and Tesla (vs General Motors) - where smaller companies have used this approach as a catalyst to get others to move to transformative practices.
  1. The corollary is also true: find competitors or benchmarks of cases or companies that have got into trouble for falling behind. So occasional use of scare tactics (which we call contingent liabilities when we talk about them rationally in business) can sometimes also be effective. For example, BP lost 50% of its value in 50 days after the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon disaster and it is costing them $62 billion (so far). Volkswagen will pay $15-35 billion following its Dieselgate scandal for cheating on emissions.

From a slightly more conceptual angle, I have found Beckhard's formula for change to be very helpful.

For change to happen, R (Resistance to change) < (must be less than) D (Dissatisfaction with the status quo) x V (Vision of what is possible) x F (First concrete steps).

Figuring out which of these factors is weak or missing - and strengthening it - is another way to ensure that transformative change is successful.

Finally, it comes down to leadership. Finding a transformative leader who buys into your vision for the future is key. But it doesn't always have to be the person at the top. According to the theory of Distributed Leadership, there are leaders at every level of organisations. This is where my research on the 4 types of Purpose-Inspired Leaders applies. For change to be effective, you need a combination of Expert, Facilitator, Catalyst and Activist types. 

Ultimately, for change to be triggered, do individuals require experiencing a level of discomfort, dissatisfaction, or cognitive dissonance?

I like that you related dissatisfaction to cognitive dissonance. I'm always asked whether we need to wait for catastrophes and crises before we will change. Often, yes, but we can also have a crisis of consciousness, where we feel out of step with the emergent norms in society. This drive to belong and to be in tune with the prevailing wisdom is incredibly strong - and we should use this to our advantage in sustainability. The more we can spread the message that sustainability is the new-normal, and that anything else is just un-cool and dumb, the more we will see "Joe/Jane public" unconsciously switching.

How do you address changing the systems in developing countries?

A lot of my work is with developing countries (and I was born and lived for many years in Africa). What I find is that the recognition for an active role for business in society is strong, but they are trapped in the philanthropic mindset. What I have found helpful are the following approaches:

  1. Appeal to the values of the society, whether cultural (e.g. "ubuntu" or "humanism" in Africa) or religious (e.g. "zakat" or "wealth tax" in Islam). Often these values match very well with the philosophy of social responsibility and reminding business people acts as an effective catalyst.
  1. Focus on social entrepreneurship, which is often strong in developing countries. They say necessity is the mother of invention and it's true. Many people have to be creative just to survive - and there are lots of cases of entrepreneurs using their creativity to tackle social and environmental problems.
  1. Appeal to the global aspirations of the large companies (we call this "explicit CSR, e.g. compliance with global sustainability standards to access international markets), but focus on local benefits for SMEs (we call this "implicit CSR", e.g. improving customer access to your products and services).

How to change a society which does not believe in sustainable development? And what is beyond sustainable development?

I do think we suffer from a communication problem on sustainable development. These days, I speak much more about future-fitness (including my 5-S framework of creating a more safe, shared, sustainable, smart and satisfying future), which everyone can agree on and about integrated value creation, which speaks the language of business better. So we need to change the messaging to something desirable.

Sustainability, as my colleague Michael Braungart would say, is boring!

So what comes after sustainable development? There is a "thrivability" movement, which I like. My sense is that we will have to be focused more on Regeneration - so the regenerative economy, regenerative business, regenerative politics, etc. - applying to our sense of personal meaning, community and the environment. And the poet in me would say we only need to focus on discovering, honouring and protecting the "beauty of life".

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