Sustainability-driven Collaboration, Part III: Simplicity without reduction, authentic leadership, and process design

In the previous entry in this three-part series on Sustainability-driven Collaboration, I discussed value creation and vision as key drivers of collaboration: how shared and individual value keep collaborators at the table working towards collective goals and how an ambitious, principle-based vision of success (sustainability) can provide creative tension and serve as a powerful driving force for such  multi-stakeholder initiatives.

Based on experience and research at the organizational level, I believe that the following three lessons are just as important for improving the capacity of collaborative efforts to achieve transformational systems change towards sustainability.

1. Simplify without reduction – Whether at the scale of individual organizations or in the context of multi-stakeholder collaborative efforts, achieving transformational outcomes in an increasingly complex world requires us to acknowledge and deal with complexity as best we can. Given the multiple competing priorities and dynamics at play even in small organizations, it is true that: “whether building companies, steering governments, or achieving personal goals, avoiding complexity isn’t the answer anymore.”

Simplifying, while not reducing or dismissing complexity, becomes that much more important in multi-stakeholder collaborative contexts. Approaches such as Change Labs have emphasized the need to embrace complexity and use detailed systems mapping and similar practices to identify leverage points for change.

Yet most of us cannot hold complicated systems maps in our heads as we make decisions day to day. Creating systems maps to reveal connections, complexities, and leverage points can be powerful, but  individuals and groups can quickly get lost in complexity. Using a systems perspective on an ongoing basis therefore requires simplification without reduction, a process that involves being able to recognize patterns.

For example, the system conditions for sustainability are a useful lens through which individuals and groups can identify patterns that make sense of complicated systems maps about current reality,  highlight strategic leverage points, and guide the adaptive processes of trial and error and rapid prototyping that are necessary for innovation.

2. Demonstrate authentic leadership – The importance of effective leadership is no secret to anyone who has tried to make change happen.  For sustainability-driven change in organizations, leaders play an integral role in helping develop shared assumptions and beliefs about the importance of sustainability to long-term success, shared understanding about what sustainability means, and shared language with which to describe sustainability issues.

In multi-stakeholder collaboration, authentic and effective leadership is just as crucial. Leaders issue the call to collaborate, frame the narrative of the desired and emerging transformational change, and encourage participants to be comfortable with accepting the emergent and uncertain outcomes that characterize collaboration. Leaders can also visibly model the behaviors so important to collaboration. Baan, Long, and Pearlman, authors of The Lotus, have described 9 personal capacities for transformational leadership. These capacities include having compassion, generating whole system and whole-self awareness, holding paradoxes and ambiguities, and maintaining a sense of humour.

Otto Scharmer’s Theory U: Leading from the Emerging Future provides the definitive word on leadership aimed at transformational change. According to Scharmer, the primary job of leadership is “to enhance the individual and systematic capacity to see, to deeply attend to the reality that people face and enact. Thus the leader’s real work is to help people discover the power of seeing and seeing together.”

3. Design good processes – Sustainability-driven change within organizations doesn’t just happen through compelling words, good indicators, best practices, or even strong leadership. It takes special attention to the social processes that foster creativity, hope, and ambition in this work. Getting people to interact with different people and in different ways than they usually do via carefully designed processes that respect the way adults learn is vitally important for the work to be enduring and the change to be transformational. As explained in Frances Westley, Sean Goebey, and Kirsten Robinson’s Change Lab/Design Lab for Social Innovation, clear processes “are there to provide the direction and put momentum behind a change-making project, not stifle its creativity.” 

In a multi-stakeholder context, the importance of clear process is amplified by the absence of any particular unifying organizational structure, the necessity for widely differing viewpoints, and the stronger likelihood of mistrust among individuals. Trust is the most important ingredient for success in a multi-stakeholder collaboration and building trust is the most important process design challenge. Helping people be present and honest, while articulating and respectfully opening up to points of disagreement, requires careful process design and facilitation.

A lack of clarity in role definition is also an extremely common problem in collaborations. Well-defined processes can help by  “providing all participants with a sense of where their workshops are going and how the work they are currently doing, researching, sense-making, or prototyping will fit into broader system change.”

TNSblog2Given the challenges, it is no surprise that social innovation labs that offer models on how to actually run collaborative efforts have become so popular. The emphasis of the Lab approach on careful process design, the engagement of diverse stakeholders from across a whole system, and the messy, emergent nature of such endeavors means that Labs tend to require a significant investment of resources and a hefty time commitment from stakeholders.

Advancing the important and emerging practice of Sustainability-driven Collaboration

With all of these lessons and questions in mind, The Natural Step Canada has developed and launched a program called the Sustainability Transition Lab. We aim to blend the lessons that we’ve learned about facilitating transformational change at the organizational level with the best practices that enable change in a multi-stakeholder context.

We think that it is possible to accelerate change in sustainability-driven collaborations by consciously designing the process to build a principle-based vision, shared language, and widespread sustainability literacy among participants. Our bet is that this helps build buy-in and alignment more rapidly and provides helpful design constraints to guide and spur innovation efforts.

In collaboration with a number of partners, we plan to test this hypothesis through a series of projects over the next three years. This effort will itself be an experiment and we will share our learnings – successes, failures, outcomes, and results – as we go.

For more information about the Sustainability Transition Lab, please visit:

Want to engage further in the conversation about sustainability-driven collaboration? The Natural Step Canada is excited to host the 2nd annual Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability Conference on June 5-6, 2014, in Toronto. Join us to deepen learning about collaboration from experts and practitioners, experience collaboration by creating connections with other change agents, and seed new collaborative initiatives. As an Endorsing Partner of Accelerate, members and friends of the SiG community are encouraged to use the Exclusive Partner Discount Code SIG10 to automatically save 10% when registering. Learn more and register today!

Sustainability-driven Collaboration: A platform for turning wicked problems into wicked opportunities

This series of posts, entitled Sustainability-driven Collaboration builds on lessons learned over years of sustainability-driven transformational change efforts at the organization level and explores the value they can bring to multi-stakeholder collaboration.

STL Circle1In their March 2013 post to the Harvard Business Review Blog, Paul Ellingstad and Charmian Love pointedly asked the question, Is Collaboration the new Greenwashing? This attention-grabbing title resonates strongly because of the ubiquitous use of the term collaboration in the past few years, particularly with the rise of concepts such as “Shared Value” in the business community and “Collective Impact” in the not-for-profit world. Those of us who have worked in the sustainability and social change space for some time are well aware of how easily means can be confused for ends, how often talk has been confused for action, and the difficulty of achieving transformational rather than incremental improvements.

But as Ellingstad and Love’s article points out, “to solve the big challenges in the world today we need to aim for nothing less than breakthrough levels of innovation.” At Brainstorm Green 2013, Nike’s Hanna Jones echoed this sentiment in an oft-retweeted statement: “If we don’t achieve system change, we might as well go home.” It is clear that none of us alone, working isolated in our own organizations on our own problems, can affect this change.

The need for collaboration to enable systems change is so evident and compelling that collaboration itself has become a buzzword and risks being confused for an end unto itself. How do we avoid this?

This is the real question, which Ellingstad and Love began to address in their article. How can collaboration not be the new greenwashing? How can collaborative efforts achieve breakthrough results?

Systems Change & Collaboration

The answer requires us to understand how complex systems work and how they change. Here we turn to Donella Meadows’ classic article Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System and her book Thinking in Systems, which describe 12 leverage points as the most effective places to intervene in systems. Volans’ Breakthrough Business Leaders, Market Revolutions Report, released in March 2013, takes the original list of twelve and groups them into six, but generally follows Meadows’ model.

The list of system leverage points, or places to intervene in a system are as follows, in order of ascending influence:

  1. Changing the numbers: subsidies, taxes and standards
  2. Changing buffers, stocks, flows, delays and feedback loops
  3. Changing information flows
  4. Changing the rules
  5. Changing the system’s genetic code (or changing the purpose/goal of the system)
  6. Changing paradigms

Changes to higher order items on the list – rules that govern a system, the purpose that drives the system, and the paradigms making up its foundation – offer the most far-reaching and fundamental transformational change. Still, the most common methods of attempting to influence complex systems – changing numbers via subsidies, taxes and standards – while noble pursuits, unfortunately target the least effective points of leverage to affect change.

This isn’t surprising. How does one organization change the rules of a system or the system’s goals? Imagine, for example, trying to shift the rules of the transportation system of a large metropolitan area. It’s simply not something within reach of a single organization. Getting at such higher yield leverage points requires collaboration among organizations.

In their book The Necessary Revolution: How Organizations are Collaborating to Change the World, authors Peter Senge, Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur, and Sara Schley recount a number of examples of successful collaboration resulting in real change. One of the most powerful examples is the story of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system, where a collaborative effort among a range of stakeholders resulted in a de facto industry standard that has managed to influence building construction by causing change to the rules of that system.

The Necessary Revolution describes organizations that were able to find common ground, putting the issue in the centre of their efforts, and creating real and lasting change in a wide range of ways. However, as Senge and his co-authors point out, “successful collaboration is easier to espouse than achieve, and many of these efforts have struggled to realize their founders’ goals.” As anyone who has been involved in such a venture knows, collaboration is often unsuccessful, and won’t necessarily lead to systems change. Some of the most common obstacles to effective collaboration involve challenges related to trust, competing interests, power dynamics, ego, time, resources, leadership and collaborative capacity.


In recent years we’ve witnessed the rise of numerous approaches to multi-stakeholder collaboration, including some that target these key obstacles directly. Social innovation labs, including Change Labs, Design Labs, Solutions Labs and other such processes, are an important example. How can more collaborative initiatives be designed to change systems in profound, “breakthrough” ways that alter the paradigms, goals, and rules in a system and that endure over time, instead of just becoming new venues for incrementalism or distractions from deep innovation? How do we provide a platform for sustainability-driven collaboration in which participants are able to embrace complexity, and reframe ‘wicked problems’ as ‘wicked opportunities’?

In the second entry of this three-part series I will explore how lessons learned (by The Natural Step and others) from sustainability-driven change at the level of organizations may apply to the context of multi-stakeholder collaborative efforts. These lessons have underpinned the development of The Natural Step’s Sustainability Transition Lab approach.

Want to engage further in the conversation about sustainability-driven collaboration? The Natural Step Canada is excited to host the 2nd annual Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability Conference on June 5-6, 2014, in Toronto. Join us to deepen learning about collaboration from experts and practitioners, experience collaboration by creating connections with other change agents, and seed new collaborative initiatives. As an Endorsing Partner of Accelerate, members and friends of the SiG community are encouraged to use the Exclusive Partner Discount Code SIG10 to automatically save 10% when registering. Learn more and register today!


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