Why is it that some organisations are able to achieve seemingly unbelievable things in the domains of sustainability and social impact, whereas others using similar practices fail to make a meaningful difference? This article explores why organisations should not only consider ‘what’ needs to be done—but also consider ‘who’ they need to be to fully realise their sustainability aspirations.
I’m a brewer, and love my home brewing. I’m in awe of the process; brewing usually takes half a day to do, and requires a delicate mix of skill and theory. There are many variables: sterilisation is critical; the water temperature needs to be carefully managed to extract sugar from the grain, and care must be taken when preparing and adding ingredients to bring out the desired colour, aromas and flavours.
One thing many people don’t appreciate about brewing is that it’s a chemical reaction. Making beer isn’t a simple process of mixing things together. It’s a transformational process —converting sugars into alcohol—something that anyone today can easily master with the right experience, tools, and ingredients.
But it wasn’t always this easy. Although people have been brewing beer for thousands of years, for most of that time, the catalyst for fermentation was a mystery, a “practice blindspot” of the brewing process. Some families and businesses were able to mass produce beer, whereas others who had all the same ingredients and techniques simply couldn’t get it to work. It wasn’t until 1857 when Pasteur discovered the active catalyst for fermentation was yeast, that brewing underwent a fundamental paradigm shift, making it accessible to everyone.
In many ways, I feel this story is symbolic of where we are today with the sustainability challenge. It’s quite likely we have all the right bits readily available, and the real challenge now turns to discovering how we can overcome our “practice blindspots” to catalyse a better future.
In this article, I want to share what is emerging for me as one of the major blind spots of sustainability—the inner condition of our organisations. How do different organisations, with different leadership styles, worldviews, values, and culture influence real-world sustainability outcomes? And how can organisational development help to close the gap between sustainability aspirations and performance?
Common sustainability practices
Many have studied and grouped the common sustainability practices that are in use in the world today. This includes SustainAbility (2005) and Reed (2007). Figure 1 summarises their broad groupings.
While there are many takeaways possible from this figure, the one I want to zoom in on is their limited acknowledgement of interiority. Sustainability is often seen as a problem ‘out there’ in the world, which can be solved with expertise, rating tools, and innovation. There is a tendency to overly focus on what needs doing, e.g., a new green building, more efficient technology or new sustainability policy. But, as well articulated by Jason Mc Lennon, International Living Future Institute (2013)
“We need to change the way we think… when we shine a light on all the things that need to change… what we find most profoundly, is that it’s us of course that has to change, that the light shines most brightly back in our eyes”. – Jason Mc Lennon
There is a psychological and social transformational element, ‘in here’, in who we are as people and organisations which is rarely acknowledged. So while an organisation may use a sustainability practice such as Net Positive or Regenerative Development, their ability to successfully realise its potential is intimately interwoven with the inner condition of their organisation.
It’s for this reason that we will now take an organisational developmental perspective, to shine a light on this blind spot and provide a more comprehensive view of the sustainability challenge.
Laloux’s organisational development theory
Similar to sustainability, many have studied and grouped the common ways organisations evolve, and in Figure 2 we have summarised Laloux’s organisational developmental theory from Reinventing Organisations (2014).
What’s particularly interesting to note is that as each stage of organisational development evolves, it transcends and includes its previous stages. With each stage of evolution, comes new leadership styles, breakthroughs, and values, representing a paradigm shift in the ability to adapt and remain resilient in the face of uncertainty.
The later an organisation’s stage of development, the better it is able to foster systems-awareness and collective wisdom, which in turn lead to a more sophisticated ability to perform. Development enables organisations to liberate more human energy, widen their circle of compassion and contribution, and unify a diverse pool of talent.
Comparing the developmental stages with the different groups of sustainability practices presented, Figure 3 reveals a striking correlation between them. It can be suggested that as organisations have gained new perspectives and developed new worldviews, new ways of making sense of sustainability have become available, leading to the emergence of new practices. Hence organisational development is a good candidate for explaining why these distinct sustainability practice groups have emerged.
Illuminating sustainability practice blind spots
“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener” – Bill O’Brien
The great value I see in Laloux’s work is its ability to shine a light on the inner condition of an organisation—on ‘who’ organisations are—and thus their potential for catalysing sustainability practice outcomes.
By including this developmental perspective side by side with sustainability practices, it becomes clear that the potential of any given sustainability practice is interwoven with the inner condition of the organisation—because what’s inside the organisation—its values, beliefs, leadership practices, and higher purpose—manifests outside in the way it expresses its approach to sustainability.
Therefore, to close the gap between aspirations and performance, organisations should not only consider ‘what’ practices they want to implement, but they also should consider ‘who’ they need to be to fully live them. ‘Who’ an organisation is and ‘what’ practices it uses are interconnected partners in realising potential.
There is also scope for expanding this framework beyond ‘who’ and ‘what’, to include ‘why’ ‘how’, ‘when,’ and ‘where’, but that’s the topic of another article.
The key takeaway is this: what better way to promote healthy expressions of sustainability practices than to leverage the catalytic potential of organisational development?
What do you think? Does this way of talking about the sustainability challenge work for you? My intention for writing this article was to start a discussion, and develop better ways for talking about our sustainability blind spots. If you have any comments or feedback, I would love to hear from you.