Tag Archives: systems thinking

Natural Business for a World That’s Waking up

Thoughts from the wonderful Giles Hutchins –

Albert Einstein threw down the gauntlet for our human evolution when he said,

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and spaceHe experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

A task not for the faint-hearted, as it requires great courage to widen our circle of compassion amid increasing tension, fear and uncertainty. Not least it requires a fundamental shift in worldview, in how we perceive our sense of self, our relationship with others, and our sense of place and purpose within this world.

Whether it’s the disciplines of quantum physics, psychology, ecology, organisational development or evolutionary theory, it is now dawning on our contemporary consciousness that life is not simply a mechanistic construct of push-pull factors and selfish genes, where separate organisms compete with each other in the struggle for survival. Rather, we are now recognising that life is an inter-relational network of inter-being, where everything is in dynamic relation with its environment, continuously communicating and collaborating within an ocean of being. The ‘self’ is not the ‘separate self’ of individualism but the ‘differentiating self’ immersed within a rich milieu of relations. It is the diversity and reciprocity of these relations which provides for the organism’s resilience and in-turn the resilience of the wider ecosystem. As the world-renowned biologist Lynn Margulis succinctly puts it,

“Life did not take over the globe by combat but by networking.”

This living-systems view of life is beginning to permeate our corridors of power. There is an increasing recognition that business-as-usual thinking is not going to get us very far. To becomefuture-fit we need to embrace a new way of operating and organising. That new way just so happens to be the way life really works – not the control-based dominate-or-be-dominated mechanistic logic of yesterday, but the real logic of life perceived beyond the illusion of separation: emergence, receptivity, reciprocity, local-attunement, power-with, eco-systemic thinking.

In practice, this means emancipating ourselves from many of the structures inhibiting our natural aliveness today by embracing collaborative soulful practices, such as Way of Council, deep listening, mindfulness-in-motion, foresight planning, prototyping, multi-stakeholder dialogue sessions, scenario planning, white space technologies and the art of hosting tools, as well as direct inspiration from living systems such as eco-literacy, biomimicry, industrial ecology, circular economics, regenerative and adaptive cycle approaches.

There are a multitude of simple yet courageous undertakings each of us can take to help nurture a more soulful, living-systems approach to work. For instance, how about starting each and every mmasteryeeting with a minute’s silence, to help centre ourselves and tune-in to more of our natural ways of knowing (intuitive, somatic, emotional and rational) allowing for more than a glimpse of what lies beyond the busyness of our masturbating monkey-minds. How about checking in with our teams at the end of the day to share in a heartfelt way, where we practice meditation-in-motion by listening and speaking from the heart. How about having a quick round-robin at the beginning of each day for people to share what they feel grateful for at the present time, perhaps sharing who we might like to thank for helping us out in small yet loving ways, and so celebrating the good qualities of ourselves and our community. How about creating a two hour space in our schedules every Friday morning for our team to sit together in a circle, having the permission to explore and envision new ways of operating that embrace and serve life. How about creating space for a half-day workshop every four weeks with other stakeholders – such as pressure groups, think tanks, customers, suppliers, investors – giving permission for us all to explore together and share perspectives of how to do things better. How about creating a ‘children’s fire’ in our boardroom, so that all key strategic and operational decisions consider the potential impact they have on the next generation, our children. All of these are very real business practices being applied by a range of organisations today. This is not some futurist utopian vision, it’s becoming mainstream.

The number one most important thing facing our leaders, managers and change agents today is this shift in logic from an essentially mechanistic, reductive, competitive, control-based, power-over logic rooted in the story-of-separation, towards the logic-of-life, and with it the realisation that our organisations are living systems immersed within the living systems of society which are immersed within the living systems of our more-than-human world. This is why my latest book Future Fit explores – indeed activates – the qualities required for future-fit business by exploring the practical tools and techniques for this necessary shift in logic from machine to living. In this way, we deal not just with downstream effects (climate change, biodiversity degradation, endemic social inequality, racism, and so forth) we also deal with the root cause – our very relationship with life, and our sense of place and purpose as human beings in our more-than-human world.

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Can business change the world?

Creating conditions for positive business engagement in society

Leading businesses increasingly recognise the need to go beyond traditional corporate social responsibility approaches and see contribution to societal good as a strategic imperative.

Some are engaging fodeloitte 1r commercial return, recognising opportunities to develop new value. This might be through access to additional revenue from new markets, to solve a problem and/or to build new strategic capability.

Each of these motivations results in different pitfalls for which there are some useful ‘remedies’.

1. Accessing new markets
Most businesses are aware of the value in the bottom of the pyramid. Some have noticed that this segment is also more resilient to economic flux and that businesses that have engaged here have received significant public visibility – all good reasons to develop a new market.

Some companies get this right. Grameeen is the much touted example.  Another example comes from the insurance world. One issue confronting the poor is the lack of any support system – if a child is sick or a shop burns down, there is no access to bridging funds or reparations. In many cultures this is addressed by women pooling funds to support each other through crises. Recently AXA created an initiative to support groups of these women (working through PWDS in India) to access family health insurance. Based on a community verification and penalty scheme, operating costs are kept low. This is a positive example of a company engaging with new markets in a way that is in line with existing structures and which meets real needs.

Other companies don’t get this right. A large water company tried to set up a water purification scheme in India. This provided entrepreneurs with the equipment to purify water, at an ongoing cost for maintenance over a ten year period. This wasn’t successful – it required new entrepreneurial structures, forced communities into long term debt but also, importantly, didn’t address the real problem – prevention of dirty water would be better than cure.

The main pitfall with this motivation is lack of alignment to communities and this is best solved by operating closely and within communities to determine and meet their actual needs.

2. Solving a problem.

Often this is driven by CSR practitioners or corporate philanthropists as a more sustainable alternative to traditional ways of donating. This may take various forms – the Carbon Trust was tasked with creating new businesses to shift sectors towards low carbon alternatives, M&S recently looked at how a new initiative could solve both a growing skills shortage in the food industry and help employ young people.

Both of these initiatives  – like most other initiatives of this type – suffered from a lack of inherent commercial rationale. They were looking for solutions where unmet customer needs (and therefore a commercial value proposition) were not the main focus. This made creating a business case very difficult.

These cases were ‘cracked’ by developing an indirect customer (e.g. suppliers, philanthropic funders), using new business models (e.g. long term equity upside) or finding a value differentiator (e.g trusted brand ).

A solution to a lack of inherent commercial rationale is therefore using ‘extreme’ commercial creativity. 

3. Strategic engagement.

These forward thinking pioneers are actively creating the customers, capabilities or resources for their future. A great example is Interfaces Net Impact programme.  It pays fishermen for old nets and then transforms these into tufting material for carpets. Fishermen from poor communities receive value from a ‘waste’ product. These nets are no longer thrown into the ocean and loss of marine life is prevented. Interface has a differentiated input for its carpets and new capabilities in setting up partnerships and accessing resources. Currently we are working on another Interface initiative to alleviate poverty, create a secondary market for used carpet and develop capability for global recycling.

A pitfall of companies operating with a strategic intention is the negative effect of ‘unintended consequences’. For example by enriching only part of the population resentment may be stirred up which results in domestic violence or tribal warfare.

Uninitended consequences can (often) be addressed by organisations taking a systems thinking approach to any new initiative.

For any organisation venturing into this space three new competences need to be built:
– extreme partnering: bringing together unlikely play mates with different agendas and resources towards achieving a common goal (e.g. AXA, PWDS charity, local women),
– lateral innovation: designing business value in entirely new ways, and
– ecosystem thinking: making sure that supporting initiatives and structures are in place to provide all the elements required (for example
Interface recognised the need for a banking partner for its networks initiative).

There are tremendous benefits for companies venturing into social change. From the bottom line benefits (e.g. new customers or premium products), to risk mitigation (e.g. diversified sourcing) to intangibles (e.g. employee loyalty, customer aw
areness).

I’d go further and say that no business can, over the long term, separate itself from the society that supports it – as suppliers or customers. Positive engagement with society is an imperative for business to build a robust and resilient global future. 

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This article is an excerpt from a talk Nicola did for Deloitte at a Net Impact event. She is focused on creating new commercial solutions for social and environmental change and is interested in exploring thinking and opportunities in this area. What is your experience in this area? Any lessons you’d like to share? How could your company engage better with society?

Please contact her on nicola.millson@6-heads.com for further information.