Notes from the Field: Forum on Business Innovation for Sustainability

Bob Siegel


Bob Siegel
The Society for Organizational Learning (SOL) held a Forum on Business Innovation for Sustainability in Atlanta at the end of March 2007. The event was presented by SOL’s Sustainability Consortium (SSC). The Sustainability Consortium was founded in 1999 by ten companies in response to the question, “How can we accelerate learning for Sustainability?” This was in turn a manifestation of the awareness that sustainability is the vanishing point of systems thinking, the ultimate system, if you will, being the whole planet and everything on it.

The Forum was a two and a half day event with an additional full day of pre-conference workshops featuring presentations by such notables as in the sustainability field as Peter Senge, Gil Friend and Janine Benyus, as well as top leaders from such diverse and influential companies as GE, BP, Coca-Cola, Nike, Seventh Generation, DTE Energy, Sysco, Schlumberger and Plug Power.

This was SSC’s second such public forum, open to members and non-members alike, the first having been two years ago in Dearborn, MI.

It’s fair to say that the difference over the two years was dramatic, particularly with regard to the attendees’ awareness of sustainability. In ’05 they came to find out what it was; this time they came to learn how to do it and in many cases to put some context around what they were already doing.

According to the mission statement, the Forum was designed “for leaders in diverse positions committed to developing and integrating more sustainable business practices for environmental and social prosperity as well as a means for spurring innovation, efficiency, and economic vitality.” The intent of the Forum was “to serve as a catalyst for accelerated learning and thinking on sustainability through innovative best practice presentations, solutions-driven conversations and a systems approach.”

The six Pre-Conference workshops ranged from Organizational Learning and Systems Thinking for a Sustainable Future with Sara Schley and Joe Laur, and Change Leadership for Sustainability with Seetha Coleman-Kammula and Brian Coleman, to Evaluating the ROI of Sustainability Initiatives with Gil Friend. Each of these was a full day containing many treasures.

I attended Using Organizational Learning to Shape Sustainable Enterprises with Peter Senge, Roger Saillant and Judy Brown.

Peter opened the session with a number of thought provoking questions. How do we promulgate change? How do we achieve sustainability? How does this work connect to our personal journey? How do we treat ourselves with the care we’d like to give the Earth? How does the critic become a resource for us? How do we bring this home?

He then talked about the idea of Presence as a way to connect with the inner journey which for most in attendance runs in the general direction of sustainability: Flow, the interchangeability of past and future as they rotate around the present, entering the motion of the moment; skiing moguls, white-water kayaking, poetry, reflecting, then moving forward. All learning is finding out where you are out of balance. Tim Galway’s Inner Game of Tennis. Putting the emphasis on what actually happened. Not just that the ball went out of bounds, but where did it go? What part of the racket touched it? We grow and we succeed by deeply paying attention.

Eckardt Tolle, in his book, A New Earth, makes a major point about the difference between thinking and awareness. We seem to be much better at the former than the latter.

There is a difference between listening and waiting to respond.

Roger spoke mostly about the “camp meeting” practice as a form of participatory or cooperative leadership. He says the practice derives from the work of Bruce Gibb and the book Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel. It consists of inviting all the stakeholders to sit in a circle and address the following questions

  • Where are you?
  • Where do you want to go?
  • Why do you want to go there?
  • How are you going to get there?

Talking with emotionaltruth can lead to powerful action but only if the whole story has beentold. Fierce honesty invites people to step up to the next level. Howdo you keep things from going out of control? Answer: by reflection. Followthis formula. Work every day. Reflect every 30 days on the quality of yourwork. Then reflect every 90 days on the quality of your reflection.

True story. When Roger was Power Train Quality Manager for Ford he went to visit a plant in Belfast, Northern Ireland, that was having significant quality problems. The plant’s workforce maintained a strict ratio of Catholic and Protestant workers. There was little communication between the two groups. Tensions in the plant ran high. Fistfights were a common occurrence. The two union leaders, one from each side, hadn’t spoken to each other in nine years. If the plant didn’t improve its performance it would likely be shut down. Roger convened a meeting of all the team leaders. They sat in a circle. There were lots of stony faces and crossed arms in the room. Not much conversation took place, but the basic facts came out. That night Roger stayed up until 3AM writing a report documenting all the issues impacting the plant. When he shared the report with the same group the next day, they were amazed that someone actually cared that much to document in such detail, everything that was going on at the plant. They felt his passion. Then they began to open up. They went around the circle and answered Roger’s four questions. It turned out that despite their considerable differences, they had a lot in common. They all wanted the plant to continue and the reason why was because of their children. Once they had shared their emotional truth, Roger was able to tap into that in a way that would guarantee success. He immediately hired 22 interns from among the children of the existing workforce. Suddenly there were flesh and blood reminders of what they all cared most about working alongside them, Protestant and Catholic alike. It made a huge difference. Within six months, the plant quality had risen to benchmark level.

Roger closed with three key points.

  1. Create the conditions where people can get honest and deep
  2. Anyone can organize this, and
  3. You have to be willing to give up control.

This is all about empowerment. You can shape it, you can mentor it. But in the end it has a life of its own.

Peter came back with Judy to talk about the three core learning capabilities: Aspiration, Reflective Conversation and Understanding Complexity. Aspiration is one of two ways to effect change, the other being desperation. Reflective conversation is a practice whose goals is to surface the underlying assumptions. We all bring forth a certain reality with our awareness. But how much do our predispositions color and shape our perceptions? How quickly do we climb the “ladder of inference,” going from data to interpretation to attribution to generalization? The trick is to catch yourself in the act of doing this.

On the subject of understanding complexity, “a characteristic of higher consciousness to the ability to adapt multiple perspectives.” Because understanding is always limited by the observers point of view. But we need multiple viewpoints to reconcile the hierarchical order with the camp circle, because as Roger said earlier, “emotional truth can lead to powerful action but only if the whole story has been told.” Once the story is known the hierarchy can be useful for implementation, bearing in mind that at all levels of the hierarchy, there is thinking and executing going on.

Peter opened the formal conference on Wednesday with his presentation on Moving Beyond the Industrial Age Bubble. The talk clearly set the tone for the rest of the conference. He talked about the dramatic change in South Africa in the 1980’s that no one could have possibly predicted. There had to be enough people who believed that there was no future on the road that they are currently on for a change of this magnitude to occur. The same is true today. If we go beyond this point or get to a place where no alternative road is accessible, then we get desperation: people who simply give up and become nihilistic decadents or suicide bombers, depending on their budget and their schedule.

Speculative bubbles go back at least as far as ancient Egypt. Their logic is internally consistent, but they deny a larger reality. Today we have a fossil energy-based concentration of wealth. We have 30% unemployment in Saudi Arabia. We have, in the West, one ton of stuff extracted from the Earth per person per day (90% of which is waste). The average pound of food travels 2000 miles. We have maximized production, but…The globalization of agriculture is the single greatest cause of poverty in the world. Quality of life is improved by increasing income so that more stuff can be consumed.

All of this is the antithesis of nature. Nature wastes nothing and produces whatever is needed where it is needed. Quality of life in achieved by living in harmony with one’s surroundings. The bubble is set to burst. Will it burst catastrophically, or can we let the air out gradually?

Judy Brown led a session on poetry. The session inspired us to approach these questions with our hearts as well as our heads. Why? Because that is where the hope lies and we can’t move forward in this work without hope. Judy described poetry as “that bit of language that keeps us going?”

John Krenicki of GE and Vivienne Cox of BP spoke about Climate Change and Sustainable Business. Both agreed that there were no home runs in the energy production future, but many singles. Both mentioned wind power as a huge opportunity. BP created a shared vision two years ago, which emerged as low carbon power.

Children’s entertainer, Raffi closed out the day with some uplifting music, strongly rooted in principles of sustainability. He told us that the mark of every Golden Age is that children are the most important thing.

Perhaps the most significant thing the group did at this meeting was to open the doors to the voice of the customer. But who is the customer of sustainable business? It’s an excellent question. If you really stop and think deeply about it, we’re not talking about today’s customers. The unambiguous answer is this: future generations. Enter Douglas Cohen. Doug, who is currently the Chair of the Resource Council for National Youth Initiatives of the US Partnership for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, a program which originated at the United Nations. He has made it his life’s work to cultivate leadership among the younger generation, an endeavor that he sees as synonymous with sustainability.

The youth participants who were selected to attend the Atlanta Forum were chosen for their interest and involvement in sustainability. They ranged in age from middle schoolers to young professionals. Some of them had started sustainability clubs on the campuses of their schools. Others had started business where they served as consultants to local business. Some are working for sustainable companies. They all had multiple points of engagement on the question of sustainability in their lives. At the conference they met as a group several times each day to share their work and hear about the work of others. Cohen took every opportunity to teach them the facilitation skills they would need “when, not if” they become leaders.

This meant that the meetings were simultaneously running at multiple levels. Starting early in the conference Doug gave each youth participant a chance to facilitate. As they went along, he would break in with commentary. “Okay, James, let’s look at what you just did. Jade was talking and Nick asked a question. Did Nick’s question widen or narrow the focus the discussion? Widen. Okay, so what do you, as the leader, feel would be best for the group at this time, to widen the focus or to stay on the point Jade was making? James wasn’t sure. What does the group think? There a lot of different points of view here, so it’s probably okay to widen the focus a little bit, but not too much. These are the kind of things you need to develop a feel for. Look around at the group. See what the body language is telling you. Feel where the energy is. You then have to learn how to trust your gut and go with it.

According to Glen Lauder, of the New Zealand National Strategy on Biodiversity and Community Sustainability, who was attending, “sustainability is an intergenerational conversation.”

Some of the principles of leadership Doug shared with group are:

  • (1) Leadership is the privilege of bringing your intelligence, your insight and your vision to others.
  • (2) Leaders inspire others and bring their aliveness to them.

Thursday’s opening Plenary, The Coming Age of Systems Citizens, featured Hal Hamilton, President of Sustainability Institute, Jeffrey Hollender, CEO of 7th Generation, Roger Saillant, CEO of Plug Power, Dan Vermeer, Director of Global Water Partnerships at Coca-Cola and Peter Senge .

Peter opened, placing the focus on the three primary issues of food, energy and water. He talked about our extraordinary interdependence. “We will be living in an age where everybody is living in everybody else’s back yard.” Being cognizant of the considerable differences between some of these enterprises in scope and scale, how is each organization able to keep focused on their sustainability goals. He mentioned 7th Generation’s Self-examining developmental relationships as an example.

Dan’s story is about water. Two-thirds of the world’s water is used by agriculture. He emphasized the importance of a shared language. Sustainability was not immediately embraced at Coca-Cola, but they finally got aligned around the issue of water. It came into focus when they superimposed their operational footprint on a map of water availability.

Jeffery’s discussion was remarkably candid. We are essentially in the business of creating garbage. All of our products are disposable. We spent 19 years being less bad than everyone else. How do we move to the next level? How do you redesign your business for a rapidly changing world? Ninety-nine percent of the time we are doing what we did yesterday. But if we are truly conscious, even one per-cent of the time, great things can happen. It is scary how un-whole how even such a small company as ours can be?

Roger spoke next. He described the challenge of keeping 320 employees aligned for continuous inspiration in a very turbulent, beleaguered market environment in a company that is not profitable. “Where else can you get a paycheck and so much abuse? It’s about seeing beyond the horizon. All of us face insurmountable challenges, whether we know it or not. In our organization, we know it. We have to see ourselves as being both important and unimportant at the same time, like the 12th century masons who worked on the foundations of cathedrals they knew they would never live to see completed. We want to sure that we are growing sequoias and not radishes but we have to resist the impulse to pull up the plant to check the roots.”

Hal described his Food Lab team as follows: “We needed a group that was diverse enough to see the whole situation, but influential enough to act.” This reflected directly back to what Peter and Roger had said a day earlier about the power of emotional honesty and the need for the complete story.

John Adams, Mike Dupee, Sheri Flies, David Gershon and Darcy Winslow next led a plenary session on Igniting Organizational Capacity for Deep Change. David presented a five step process to get people involved, beginning with empowerment, social creativity, uniting principle, transformation and scalability. This allows individuals to take responsibility, invent the future, bring the players together and develop replicable solutions towards a tipping point. How do you move innovation through a culture? Early adapters are the first 15%, then the early majority in the next 35%. The late majority is the next 35%. These are the people who are just getting cell phones now. And finally, the laggards, of which David says don’t bother. The biggest payoff is to focus on the first two groups, momentum will carry the third. What this means is that it’s good to sing to the choir, to strengthen that early majority. They described a successful project called Ecoteam where they involved 20,000 people and got them to change their behavior. The Portland pilot of the low carbon diet achieved a 22% reduction in CO2. Don’t just focus on the environment. Bring in other hooks like improving quality of life for children, getting to know your neighbors and building a sense of community. Each region has its own hook. Florida and Louisiana respond to hurricanes. West Virginia and Tennessee are concerned about mountain top removal.

Solving Worthy Challenges with Biomimicry. Janine Benyus. Janine described herself as “the biology teacher you get to have as an adult.” In many ways Janine’s talk echoed what Peter said earlier about deeply paying attention. She elaborated that point with numerous fascinating examples of where designers have learned form the natural world by doing just that. This is an emerging field of study as demonstrated by the Center for Biologically Inspired Design at Georgia Tech. Biologists have learned a great deal about nature’s marvels, but they have never been taught to ask, “What can you do with them?” Some examples included looking at fleas’ knees for the most resilient elastomers, learning about electric storage from eels, developing anti-collision software by studying swarming locusts, deriving materials from self-lubricating dung beetles, emulating the highly flexible skin of the sage grouse for vibration damping, or gleaning a mosquito repellent recipe from the crested auklet. Janine has also seen tire tread designs mimicking tree frog feet, underwater modems based on dolphin chirps and ways to use limestone to capture CO2 in the way that seashells do.

Janine exhibited great confidence in Mother Nature’s ability to solve problems, if we allow her to teach us. The Biomimicry Institute now soliciting a list of problems to which these techniques can be applied.

Peter opened the final day with a discussion of the global nature of the issues that face us.

We belong to an inescapable network of mutuality including mutuality of ecosystems, mutuality of freer movement of information, ideas, people, capital, goods and services. We need to live and lead towards a future which is outside the bubble.

The final speaker was Jeffery Brown, a minister from Boston’s inner city. Jeffrey described leadership as about being what we have not yet mastered. “I thought I’d bring God into the streets but I found out that God had beat me there. But the God I found there was not the God I recognized …We were looking at the situation the wrong way. It wasn’t two worlds, it was one. We talked about taking back the streets. But the streets were never taken from us, we abandoned them…I am living through a process that brings the impossible into the realm of possibility. You just have to keep moving into it.”

We find ourselves living along a spectrum that ranges form The Hell With It, to I Accept Personal Responsibility There was a strong sense as the program drew to a close that “If its to be, it’s up to me. A commitment was made for the next conference to be co-created and co-hosted by the youth. Our future depends on our ability to see ourselves as part of the big picture and to align ourselves with it. To quote the Afghan poet, Ghalib as youth leader Scott Beall did, “Whoever can’t see the whole in every part plays Blind Man’s Bluff.” When played on the scale it’s being played at now, that becomes a very dangerous game.

Robert Siegel is an author, an activist, and an inventor. He lives in upstate New York where he works in a six-sided room with windows facing a 50 year old ginkgo tree that is just beginning to leaf out. He holds a Master’s degree in Engineering and 45 US patents. He is currently working on a high efficiency indoor air quality device. He has published various articles on innovation and sustainability in magazines as diverse as Strategy and Business, Mechanical Engineering, H2Nation, and the SOL Sustainability Consortium newsletter among others. He has self-published two novels and has had poetry featured in a major anthology. He currently chairs the Global Warming Committee of the Rochester Regional Group of the Sierra Club where he is working on several initiatives to reduce humanity’s impact on the climate at the local level. Learn more at