Building Sustainable Legacies


How to inspire scientists on a Monday morning?

The Swiss National Fund (SNF) is a key provider of research funding in Switzerland. The National Research Programme 73 (NRP73) is a CHF 20 mio. research program that supports and encourages applied research across all fields to help achieve a sustainable economy. After a lengthy application and screening process, 25 projects were selected across all major public research institutions in Switzerland. The ambition of the program is that these 25 projects deliver not just independent research outcomes but collaborate among them and also with the stakeholders they seek to influence. That is a high call and one that researchers traditionally find difficult to embrace. It is often hard enough to collaborate within a multi-stakeholder project that there is little room to investigate further opportunities beyond. My job as the opening keynote speaker of the NRP73 kick-off session with about 100 of the scientists present in one room was “to inspire them”.

I chose to address three key questions that would contextualize their projects and to develop key emerging challenges resulting from this investigation. Knowing that there would be an expert in the room with more knowledge than me on pretty much any point I would address, I needed to be careful in framing my assumptions and conclusions. The three questions addressed the role of sustainability research in Switzerland, the ability to ensure relevance, and how to achieve impact through sustainability research. Figure 1 shows an overview of the emerging challenges I have identified.

Figure 1: Overview of the emerging challenges resulting from the 3 questions

In the context of the Gapframe (see Figure 2), I suggested that each project team assesses their project with regards to the issue it addresses. Some concern issues where Switzerland is particularly strong internationally and where solutions can be pioneered as a result of new insights. Other issues are of key priority for Switzerland itself and solutions will need to be innovated to ensure local relevance. Further issues may be of critical relevance globally and Swiss solutions can be scaled and shared as best practices.

Figure 2: Overview of the emerging challenges resulting from the 3 questions

To provoke thinking, I suggested there was a perception gap between how practice looks at “applied research” and how science looks at it (see Figure 3). This generated more nodding than I had dared to hope for. I even got a positive reaction to my suggestion to consider taking an action research stance, whereby the researcher assumes a subjective partner rather than an objective observer perspective. Very promising indeed!

Figure 3: The perception gap between science and practice in refereeing to “applied research”

When looking at these challenges, I remembered the insight of Insight of Andrew Hoffman in his book “How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate”: more knowledge doesn’t change minds. So how do we maximize the value of all the knowledge that will be generated by these 25 projects? My recommendation was framed as an attempt to answer the three questions and I highlighted that the secret lies in the research process. I summarized the elements of a success research process in 7 points:

  1. PURPOSE FOCUS
  2. DYNAMIC
  3. INCLUSIVE
  4. CO-CREATIVE
  5. IMPACT ORIENTED
  6. ONGOING DISSEMINATION
  7. ADAPTIVE OUTPUT

A purpose focus entails verifying again & again: does this project truly serving society, and if so how? A dynamic process needs to integrate new developments and may embrace an action research stance. Being inclusive means involving those stakeholders that are intended recipients the project seeks to influence. A co-creative research projects includes being truly “applied” from a user-perspective rather than a research perspective and includes integrating feedback. Being impact oriented is about ensure that the project is truly influencing those who matter when it matters. Ensuring ongoing dissemination means that external communications starts from the very beginning of the project, not only once first results are in. Finally, achieving an adaptive output includes negotiating and agreeing on value of improving output along the way according to changing context.

In conclusion, I suggested that it is of prime importance to review and adapt both the research process and outcome in an adaptive and dynamic way throughout the project lifetime.

 

 

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs

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How CEOs can inspire personal change

Imagine you had 30 minutes with 4 renowned CEOs in front of several hundred business practitioners and you wanted to use the time to create change in the audience. What would you do? I recently had the opportunity and here is what happened!

At the Swiss Green Economy Symposium, the largest event among sustainability enthusiasts in the German speaking part of Switzerland, I could facilitate a CEO panel. I had about six months to prepare which was necessary given the busy agenda of the CEOs. I contacted more than a dozen to have a confirmed gender balanced panel of 4 CEOs. One of the female CEOs had confirmed early and said she would participate with one condition: that there would be at least as many women on the panel as men. What a great condition! Imagine how things would shift if all women (and men) would demand this!

I wanted to create a panel that would serve as a trigger for change in the audience rather than a the usual story-telling inspiration sharing success stories of their organizations. Would I be able to convince the CEOs to give up the opportunity to position their company in front of an attractive audience in service of creating a space where change could happen in the audience? Yes, imagine that. CEOs were open to that idea, once I shared my idea with them and had talked them through the concept. Wonderful!

Figure 1: The Circle Model connecting the inner world of personal development with the outer world of organizational development as a transformative journey towards a world worth living in (Katrin Muff, 2016)

We split the 30 minutes in three parts. After a short introduction where I framed the conversation with a simple concept (see figure 1), we started the first part. Each CEO shared a personal story illustrating the question: “which challenges have influenced them personally and how have these shaped the way you are leading your organization?” As the audience collectively leaned forward, topics such as gender stereotypes, work-place injustice, product waste and power abuse were discussed with courage and vulnerability. I invited the packed auditorium to take moment and to individually reflect on what has shaped them most in your past and how this influences their priorities at work. Both in terms of what they currently do and what they wish you were doing. People came to me afterwards and said they have never experienced a room so quiet and so focused. The magic was starting.

In a second round, we had selected only two of the four CEOs share examples of what issues were challenging their organization in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world and what long-term business opportunities were emerging concerning the Sustainable Development Goals? To grant time to the audience, the generosity of the other CEOs to stand back was really touching. We were one and we had one common objective! I invited the audience to turn to their neighbor and to discuss what options their saw to implement change for their organizations to embed the SDGs into their strategy. On a background slide, I shared a support website for those needing help. The room exploded. Everybody talked and shared and exchanged. We sat in our chairs with our jaws wide open. What an energy in the room. And how were we going to get them back to listening to us? When the time was up, the CEOs and I spontaneously stood up together and loudly applauded the audience. They look up and stared at us in surprise. They stopped talking and we could continue.

In the last round, all CEOs shared which issue concerned them most in our society and where they saw opportunities to connect these to future business activities? Their stories addressed the top burning societal issues of Switzerland as addressed by the Gapframe: CO2 overuse, equal opportunity, sustainable consumption, social integration and clean energy. I invited the audience to take a moment and choose one action that they could implement in the next 3 days to close the gap of where we are today vs. where they thought we should be in an area important for them. I offered an online tool to share these actions, if anybody felt like it.

I wish we had more time at the end, the final reflection was a minute shorter than I had hoped but our 30 minutes were up. Nonetheless, I was happily surprised when I discovered the personal commitments coming in. Figure 2 provides an overview of them grouped into some categories I hope are helpful in reviewing.

Role modelling

  • I commit to dedicate my working time to a project that serves 100% to make our living more sustainable
  • Lead a topic coming out of SGES 2017
  • I will define my personal SDG‘s to be achieved by the end of 2018
  • Break the barriers, create sense of urgency and implement the much needed change
  • Prepare presentation about the legal implications of a meat tax as a ghg heavy good

Encouraging others for action

  • Communicate knowledge to peers
  • As corny as it may sound: foremost change minds
  • I commit to also encourage others to live more sustainably
  • Talk with my Patents about their travelling
  • Poll others on these questions
  • Roll out the sdgxchange in a world wide level
  • Make my sons understand that they also have a big responsibility for Equal Opportunity and that they must contribute to achieving it

Community building

  • Organize a non-hierarchical roundtable for a common sustainable mindset within my organization and outside
  • Partner to strengthen the capability to act
  • Launch SDSN Switzerland on 2 Nov, the network that mobilizes the Swiss research & innovation community for the SDGs
  • Keep engaging people for a sustainable future
  • I’ll ask my fellow Entrepreneurs how they care about Sustainability! And I’ll publish it later on!
  • Organize the startups around me in a matrix to share sustainability progress

More time for the soul

  • Slow down. I will lower my expectations towards myself and spend more time speaking with my employees
  • I will observe better!

Aligning corporate sustainability goals with national priority issues

  • Identify lacks in our sustainability goals by comparing them with the topic of gapframe.org
  • Build our new 150kW PV project in Bern – Solarify
  • Verity the strategic goals of my organization against the Agenda2030 for Sustainable Development and adapt if needed
  • I will create a personal project on how we can introduce GTDs with local partners and stakeholders in our projects worldwide
  • Make sure that we also talk about social innovations.
  • Apply the standard for sustainable construction (SNBS) in the area of buildings

Social integration action

  • Partner up to reach higher employee diversity (age, gender, education, etc.)
  • I would like to support employees who lost their jobs with improving their skill-set and find a new opportunity or career path.
  • Transparency and equality

Reducing the CO2 consumption (Switzerland’s no 1 sustainability issue)

  • Only travel by train to destinations in Europe (always!)
  • Rain or shine, I’ll bike to work.
  • I commit to eating only very little meat and buy organic food, to fly as little as possible and compensate my flights
  • Compensate my flight
  • No more elevator – taking the steps, staying fit and saving energy
  • Exchange my diesel into an electric car
  • Conscious Consuming
  • Cook local
  • Eating less meat
  • Renovate our old Windows in order to create more insolation
  • Commit to an organic “vegetable-abo” in order to support sustainable and local agriculture.
  • Before I buy something, to ask: what is the harm when I buy this?

Figure 2: List of shared personal commitments as a result of a 30 minute transformative CEO panel

I don’t think I have ever spent so much time preparing for a 30 minute intervention. I think I spent 30 hours, or 60 times the intervention time, in preparation. I needed not only prepare the CEOs, I also needed to get the organizer onboard. Among the CEOs, we had spent two months carefully scripting each statement of each person so that we could create an overall story that would hopefully allow a change in the audience. This resulted in a 3500 word document that everybody had approved, outlining minute by minute who would say what. If you attempt something similar, ensure you have plenty of lead-time available! It is worth it though!

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs


The tricky interconnection of values and purpose

Being values-based implies a connection with oneself, a deep inner knowing. Embracing a purpose requires, so I argue here, a connection with the context in which we live and operate, a deep outer knowing. When these two senses are disconnected, we are in trouble, as individuals, as organizations and as societies at large. When the senses are aligned, thriving individually, as an organization and as a global community means thriving at all of these levels for the benefit and well-being of all.

Brené Brown recently said in an interview with Marie Forleo “our worth and our belonging are not negotiated with other people. We carry those inside of our hearts.” Brené is a widely recognized and respected psychologist in the domains of authenticity and vulnerability. She talks about how an individual can find herself, find her roots and core and how to stand up for herself and what matters to her. In many ways what she talks about has to do with finding one’s own purpose and identity or what she calls knowing who you truly are. To her, the importance of knowing who you are is key in living an authentic life as it ensures that you can always belong to yourself, rather than fitting in with what others might expect.

I can resonate with this and I understand the importance of what she says. How are we supposed to know what is right and what is wrong if we don’t know who we are and what that means in the context of what happens around us? This journey of self-knowing, of self-awareness, is a key component in the journey of being a responsible leader. It may well be the first and most important one, the dimension without which all the rest doesn’t really make sense. It certainly is critical to create role models that can serve others to find the courage to adapt their behavior and attitudes in order to re-connect with who they truly are. Or, as Lena Faraguna claims: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over the island looking for boats to save. They just stand there shining.”

Quote and image by Lena Faraguna

Let me zoom out a bit. How would we translate this self-knowing, this inner self of self-belonging in the context of working with others, of teams, and of organizations? How can a sense of belonging among a group of people, be it a family of a company, be created without negotiating with others? How can a group of individuals that belong first and foremost to themselves ever belong to a greater cause? I am troubled when I imagine how a particularly purpose-oriented company, such as those that Kathy Miller described in her last blog, might do if it decides to “not negotiate with others because its self-worth is inside of its own purpose”. Isn’t that what we are accusing the modern corporation of doing? Of putting its own priorities first and to forget about the rest? Where is the line drawn? If investors and owners are part of the inner core, then profit-maximization sure makes sense. If they are not part of it (and how might they not?), then how can a company protect its interest from investors without negotiating? Tricky.

When adding a further dimension and zooming out to an entire society, what changes in that frame? If a society decides that it needs to first and foremost belong to itself, its citizens, and not negotiate with others, what might that mean? Wouldn’t we be moving very close to the explosive sense that nationalists are expressing when they say “my country first”? And when they start protecting themselves from perceived outside threats, such as immigrants, refugees and trade agreements?

There is something dangerous in all of this. And this might well also be the dangerous in purpose-oriented firms. Purpose, after all, means what? The dictionary says purpose is “the reason for which something is done”. Well, and that is the entire problem. That is not good enough. There are excellent reasons to do something and there are incredibly stupid reasons for doing other things. Let me take the three-step zoom back from society, to the organization to the individual.

A society that defines a purpose, or “raison d’être” as something that is distinctive from what is around it, will in the worst case create harm to other societies and possibly even to itself. Global well-being can only be achieved if a society, a nation, embraces the idea that it is fundamentally and indisputably a part of the larger context in which it operates. And finding a purpose that does not take this into account is potentially harmful, as the Swiss President and many other statesmen have pointed out after President Trump gave his disturbing “America First” speak at the UN SDG forum last week.

Zooming now in to an organization or a team, what does this mean? If an organization chooses a purpose that is purely self-serving and that may seem like the best way to survive and ride the increasingly turbulent waves of change, then this organization is also very likely to harm those around it, and as a result, potentially itself. The metaphor is the cancer cell that builds its growth on eating into the very organism that is providing its living substance until that organism has been emptied out and can no longer sustain the ongoing growth of these cells. That sounds ugly and I apologize. What I mean to say is that a purposeful organization is not good enough, if that purpose does not imply taking into account the well-being of the context in which the organization operates.

Further zooming in and back to the individual, I struggle to see how an individual can and should have a sense of identify to herself that is limited to herself only. It appears limiting and potentially dangerous. As it if was necessary to put up guards against something outside. As if that sense of inner belonging needed protecting. An inward journey of discovery will uncover, I am certain, that there is both nothing and everything that can shake you and me in our core. Nothing in the sense that we are who we are irrespective of what happens outside of us, our sense of self is based on how we see and talk to ourselves. Everything in the sense that we are shaped by the events in our lives and we respond to them, in the full understanding that we have no idea what lies ahead of us.

The Circle Model (Katrin Muff 2016)

Let me attempt to conclude. In order for purpose and values to be aligned, an ongoing journey between the inner and the outer world in which we live is needed, allowing an emergent transformation as we advance. This allows a development of the inner knowing and the values we build on. In addition, purpose will need to be defined not just as the “reason for which something is done” but “the reason for which what is done serves the well-being of the next larger holon” or unit. Arthur Koestler coined the term holon (“whole”) as something that “simultanesouly a whole and a part”. Holacracy, which is founded on the principle of Holons, embraces this nicely as an operating system. A holon is a unit that is contained in another holon and that may (or not) contain other holons. Each sub-ordinate holon by definition must embrace the purpose of the holon of which it is a part and the entire system is guides by an overarching missing that should – and here Holacracy stops – again serve the next larger holon. Imagine if individuals would understand that we are holons, as parts of organizations, which in turn are holons as a part of societies, which in turn form a part of a global community, all while being in and of itself a whole that again contains other smaller holons. This understanding would allow an alignment of purpose and values based on the understanding that we are all a part of another, infinitely interconnected.

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs


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Walking the path of change: from the invisible hand to the invisible heart!

Kate Raworth left me with a question I could not answer: “How do we transform the ‘value-extraction’ mentality of the 20th century with the ‘designed-in benefits’ mindset needed in the 21st century?”. I walked home after a lovely dinner with her and pondered about why arguments that make total sense to some of us can be dismantled so easily by those who follow the profit-maximization drumbeat that has brought havoc to the world and economics in my lifetime. Kate had shared a story of well-regarded expert who proposed a cleverly designed building able to extract CO2 from its environment to a CFO. The CFO killed the genius idea with as little as: “But why should I do such thing? It doesn’t serve me!”

Kate was in Lausanne to inspire our graduating students along with Peter Bakker, President of the WBCSD, both recipients of BSL Dr. Honoris Causa awards. And they did! Peter shared a story of when he was CEO at TNT and his purchase of two long-haul planes doubled the CO2 footprint of his company in one year. The planes served to fly mobile phone from China to Europe – customers like their orders fulfilled overnight irrespective of the cost to nature. He reminded the graduates that the origin of leadership is “path finder” and that they were more than ever required to serve exactly that; as pathfinders to bring organizations to be the positive force our future needs.

Kigen Moi, the BSL Valedictorian, talked about Ubuntu, a word well known where he grew up “Humanity”. Or, as his story illustrated, the idea that no one can be happy, if the others around him are not. Such a profound thought which stands in such stark contrast to Kate’s struggles we had debated the night before.

I am struck by an oldish HuffPost blog entitled “There is no trade-off between profit and purpose” and that Paul Polman had recently retweeted with the words “To reach the land of profit, follow the road of purpose”. I have been a long advocate of using the right language to talk to various audiences. And that it is necessary to talk to those who see profit maximization as the holy grain by pointing out the immediate opportunity and risks of embracing business ideas that go beyond serving the interest of shareholders but at the same time also serve other stakeholders, society and the world at large.

To hell with it! Why should we adjust a values-based argument to a value-disconnected audience. Why cannot we not shake the CFO in Kate’s story to senses by responding with utter disbelief and exclaiming with wide-open eyes: “But how can you be happy if around you so many are unhappy? And let him reconnect with the humanity that undoubtedly sits inside of him, maybe underneath much dust and fast asleep, but most certainly alive and ticking. Why argue that purpose leads to profit, as if following purpose needed any excuse? Why having to point out there is no tradeoff between making money and doing good?

Why not shake the hearts and minds of those stuck in the 20th century logic of the misinterpretation of Adam Smith’s invisible hand? Take a look at the state of the world, the state of any single country of your choice and you can clearly and without a single doubt see that the profit-maximization argument has gotten it wrong. We have spent the last decade trying to twist purpose and values-based arguments into the ill-fatted logic of the past century and we have gotten nowhere. If we want to change the mindset that Kathy Miller and I are trying to figure out how to change, maybe the time is now ripe to start talking the truth. Kathy ended her last blog with a deep insight of Mahatma Gandhi: “You must not lose faith in humanity.  Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

Why not point out the amazing power and the beauty of the invisible heart that is beating in every single living thing and that connects all of us into a humanity across all living beings. Why not question empty values and fake arguments, and why not replace them with the wisdom of Ubuntu and insist that we can only rest if all of us are happy that that we will no longer take part in a race against each other but in a journey towards a place where all of us can be well on that gorgeous planet we are living on. Why not?!


Be the Change and Act Fearlessly

As the summer doldrums set in amidst the disharmony and dysfunction here in the USA, I’ve begun looking for inspiration on how to effect constructive change. While achieving change – especially social change- has always been very difficult, it currently seems to me next to impossible in my country.  Here, amidst the everyday claims and counter claims of “fake news”, everything and everyone is so polarized we all feel stuck in our separateness.

In her May blog, Katrin addressed how this schism strikes her and what she thinks we can do as we live through these discouraging times. She concluded that when mass protests don’t work and institutions are too easily by-passed, each of us must step up.  She said that we must “do what is right every single moment every single day” even when we don’t see immediate results. And how do we know what is right?  Katrin suggested that we use our values and our commitment to a common well-being to guide us.

Katrin’s words reminded me of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.  I immediately thought of the following quote which has been attributed to him:

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Many question whether Gandhi spoke these exact words.  Nevertheless, he said many things that implore us to first look inward before we attempt to change the world.  For example, he said the following:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Gandhi’s teachings include some specific advice about how we might change ourselves.  While his words of advice are simple, the actions he recommends are not. For example, he directed us to seek harmony in thoughts, words and deeds. And he advocated for individuals to pursue truth selflessly and with enormous humility. The pursuit of truth is hard work and takes time.

We should form our convictions with care. Gandhi said that we must defend our beliefs and not ever compromise on fundamentals such as showing others respect and honoring the dignity of every human being.

Even so Gandhi warned us to avoid arrogance concerning our own wisdom. He said, “It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”

Gandhi acknowledged that people may diverge in what they see as truth. However, he suggested that when we pursue truth humbly, with selflessness and tolerance, we may find that our varying perceptions are all part of a larger truth:

“…where there is honest effort, it will be realized that what appear to be different truths are like the countless and apparently different leaves of the same tree.”

Of course individual change without action is not enough. Gandhi claimed that we should act fearlessly, selflessly, with dignity and without violence.  He, like Katrin in her May blog, reminded us that we must take action even if we don’t see immediate results.  He believed that it is the action itself rather than the fruit of the action that is most important.  And he wisely observed that even if we may not see the results of our actions, if we do nothing, there will be no results.

Clearly Gandhi’s words and teachings have had a powerful impact on the world. Not only did he achieve enormous changes in India and in the world in his lifetime, other great change leaders such as Martin Luther King claimed to have been guided by his teachings. And Martin Luther King is arguably the greatest leader of social change in my lifetime.

Gandhi’s teachings are universally profound. His words transcend the boundaries of country and culture.  His wisdom is equally relevant to individuals, organizations and entire societies.  And for me, one of the most significant results of my readings of Gandhi is that I found the inspiration that I was looking for:

“You must not lose faith in humanity.  Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

I plan to repeat this quote to myself every time I am exposed to the relentless onslaught of disquieting news across the globe.

 

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

 

References

Rosenburg, Shaun.  Mohandas Gandhi Quotes and Their Meaning.  http://www.shaunrosenberg.com/mohandas-gandhi-quotes-and-meaning

Allen, Douglas. The Phlosophy of Mahatma Gandhi for the Twenty-first Century. Lexington Books, 2008.

Nirupama, Rao. Gandhi’s Light Guided MLK.  Politico. 3/07/2013. http://www.politico.com/story/2013/03/mahatma-gandhis-lightguided-martin-luther-king-jr-088581

 

 


The Emperor’s Clothes

When I first heard about the fairy tale of the Emperor’s clothes, I always thought that it would take just one sufficiently innocent and courageous person to point her finger at the emperor and everybody else would automatically fall out of the magic spell that had previously had let them see an altered reality. But, today’s reality is proving me wrong. Today, we are living in this weird situation where about half of the people realize that the emperor is wearing no clothes and is pointing more or less discretely to the naked leader. The other half of the people, however, see the emperor in all of his magnificent beauty of glimmering, luscious and richly decorated clothes. They are blind-sided by the appearance of wealth and the impression of power this creates. They feel the power and they either feel frightened or encouraged by what it may bring to them. If it is not question of how many people see the emperor without clothes, then what are relevant triggers or levers that might open the eyes of those who still see him in his magic dress?

When we talk about change, we remain interestingly speculative with regards to interdependencies, causes, consequences and what are precursors, pre-conditions, enablers and levers of change. Kathy Miller has provided an enlightening response to my blog suggesting that people rather than organizations are the shapers of organizational culture. She points out – correctly so in my opinion – that culture is also shaped by the structure, size, leadership and governance of an organization. These are clearly organizational elements rather than people elements. I would like to further expand that trajectory of thought by investigating what other elements influence organizational and more particularly systemic change beyond the people and organizational related factors.

We have previously established that a variety of aspects that can be summed up as people related factors of change strongly define and influence a culture. We have also established that there are a number of organizational related aspects that impact and shape culture. In the context of the subject of climate change, Andy Hoffmann has investigated why pointing out facts has at best no impact at opening the eyes of those that deny a reality that quasi an entire community of scientists have confirmed. He concludes his assessment with the observation that arguing with facts simply results in the other side generating other (alternative?) facts that further prove the opposite point of view and thus further entrench the already existing difference. If not facts, then what?

Research suggests that in order to even get a chance at changing somebody else’s mind, we need to empathically and authentically connect with that other person. From person to person, not from role to role. And this is where things fall apart. We don’t want to personally engage, there is an inner discomfort, a resistance that creeps up and that communication shuts down. I have extensive personal experience in this and I often self-observe what happens to me when I am confronted with an opinion, a feedback or comment that goes against what I believe in. There is a physical shift inside of me, that turn my receptors from open to close, my smile from broad to narrow, and my heart from trusting to a stand-by mode. Sometimes I manage to turn the switch back on “open”. When I do, it is because I manage to re-establish first my own heart connection to my inner values and purpose, maybe to my soul, and then from that space, to re-establish a connection to the best in the other person that I had previously seen. A colleague of mine describes this as “veils” that are lifted off again that had prevented a clear vision. I pretend that most of us who have self-observed such events will be able to describe some change in our physiological disposition that can serve as a signal and hence potentially allow a reversal of the process. This however, does not work well when I enter a discussion being convinced that the other person holds a “wrong” own perspective that I happen to disagree with or question in terms of honesty of interest and intent. And this is where things get sticky.

If such mastery is required at the personal level to attempt to generate change at the systemic level, we are in for a tough ride. I am struck by the parallel to the current reality across the Atlantic. There are impressive public attempts (including from the New York Times) to influence the personal moral obligation of a high ranking US prosecutor to demand an independent investigation of the Russian intervention in the US election process which is required in order to implement the checks and balances that are in theory well in place from a governance perspective but that don’t get the traction they should. Is it possible that when organizational elements fail to generate the framework for change, that we are thrown back to the individual courage, morals and ultimately mastery which are comprised in the people dimension? If mass protests don’t work, and structural frameworks can be circumvented or be neutralized or ignored, then how are we ever going to point out what one child pointed out so naively in the fairy tale of the emperor’s clothes? Or might it be the simple accumulation of individual, structural and mass pressures that little by little fill the famous barrel until one last drop makes it overflow and thus creates the change. And it mattered very little what that last drop actually was, as long as the drips kept coming. If that were true, then a possible conclusion might ultimately be a very encouraging one. Namely, that irrespective of the immediate or estimated impact of any individual action, new policy or public engagement, what is important is to do what is right  every singly moment a day. Right from an interconnected perspective that embraces values at the individual level, interests at the organizational level and a sense of common well-being and safety at the societal, global level.

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs


The Myth of Organizational Culture

There is no such thing as organizational culture there is only people culture

I am curious to explore the difference between a role and a person, an organization and its people. This difference can be illustrated by considering a familiar scenario: What is the culture of the White House? I am suggesting here that it is not the White House that has a culture – the White House is an institution that has a purpose. Those who live and work at the White House represent the people of the White House and these people, how they work together and how they are together define the culture of the White House as an institution. A different set of people will result in a different culture, even if the institution remains the same in its purpose. Individuals may have an influence on the appearance of an institution or organization and depending on the governance structure, also have an influence on the purpose. And yet, the culture is an attribute defined by a group of people, not an institution or an organization. This insight may influence our understanding of how a culture may be changed. Could it be that cultural change is much more about changes that take place at the individual level, rather than those that can be master-minded at the organizational level? Let me attempt to reflect this by considering our lessons learned through the cultural change at Business School Lausanne.

There is a seemingly small but possibly substantial difference between what Organizational Development experts call an “Organizational Culture” and what is really going on. I have become aware of this difference in a reflective talk with BSL’s Holacracy implementation coach Christiane Seuhs-Schoeller of evolutionatwork. We reflected on Business School Lausanne’s (BSL) biggest difficulty and darkest hour in the transformation from a hierarchical to a self-organizing organization that somehow relates to the people space.

As you may recall, Holacracy is a highly sophisticated operating system for self-organization that explicitly takes care of organizing decisions around the “work” that relates to the purpose of the organization and how it very clearly does not organize how people work with each other. Despite hearing and reading everything we could about this, we entered into this transformation and felt entirely unprepared for what was waiting for us.

As we focused on organizing work-related decisions in a power-distributed, non-hierarchical way, learning the complex and sophisticated Holacracy rules that provoked and forced a behavioral change in every single person taking part, we did not pay attention to something crucial: what do we do with our personal relationships above and beyond strictly work-related discussions. In our darkest months, busy negotiating the shadows cast by difficult change, we entirely neglected these personal relationships, trusting that all we needed was work-talk.

With hindsight, we now know that there is a huge need to deal with and find solutions for personal relationships. This is not something a “tribe meeting” can fix as Holacracy may suggest. It is one-to-one work, not something that can be masterminded and implemented across the board. Personal relationships are apparent in every single moment that people work together – in the same space or around a common purpose; rather than being an occasional moment around the coffee machine, they dominate all interactions. Purely work-related decisions form the exception in such exchanges, something we have become able to distinguish thanks to Holacracy, which forces a particular and awkward talk-protocol when work is concerned. As such we would start work-talk with a sentence that sounds like, “In my role of ….., I would like to talk to you in your role of … about …”. And this is where the conversation shifts from a personal talk to a work-talk where the two people share specific accountabilities they can expect within their cooperation.

Such a situation is in stark contrast with the more typical situation where a person with a superior position casually strolls into an office of one of her or his subordinates, leans against the doorpost and in a collegial tone starts a friendly conversation that, depending on personal affinity, is either relaxed, hearty or a bit tense. Typically, somewhere towards the end of that nice chat, the boss comes up with some new expectation, deadline reminder, urgent action to be embraced or a long-term project to ponder. Depending on the managerial style of the supervisor, she or he either checks back about the feasibility of this requests or just strolls out of the office, fully expecting the subordinate to take her/his request as an order. This is a normal mix of personal and work relationship that all of us who work in a normal hierarchy are used to and know by experience in all of its wonderful – and less wonderful – shades of conscious or unconscious manipulation.

Self-organization crushes such situations by rendering them inacceptable in one way or another. It is impossible for any individual to walk into the office of anybody else and expect them to do something just because his/her seniority dictates that their “great idea” becomes an action on someone else’s to-do list. Anybody who has not lived self-organization has no means of truly understanding the implication of this. It makes no sense and any straight-thinking person wonders how anything that needs to get done, does get done. This is where Holacracy and other self-organizing operating systems tend to fail. A leader cannot fathom giving up her or his power and truly trusting that other individuals will not only step up into the space created by defining clear accountabilities in roles, but will have so many more ideas in these roles than could ever have been imagined by one supervisor alone. This trust is a leap of faith that seems to be a big ask for leaders.

At BSL, we were lucky that this was not a problem. As a leader, I was very keen to let go of the implicit power my position held and to focus on activities I could not spend enough time on but where I felt I could add true value for the organization. Given that letting-go was not our main issue (although, despite my wish to let go, I had to check my instincts for a good year!), a deeper issue emerged as a potential deal-breaker in transforming organizations. This is what I am fascinated by: the distinction between what an organization is and what a group of people is.

An organization is indeed NOT a group of people that works together. An organization, and this distinction is crucial, is a “thing”, a legal entity with a very specific purpose that subsequently serves as a vehicle to employ people and resources to realize that purpose. A group of people consists of individuals who, together, form the group. An organization possesses a “culture”, no more than my teacup can possess a culture. My teacup may look a certain way by having a certain shape and color and material, but it has no culture. In the same way, an organization may house its employees in a certain type of building, paint its walls a certain color or serve food of a given quality in its canteen; however, these attributes do not constitute culture. The only aspect of an organization that can have a culture is the people. There is people culture, not organizational culture. If you want to look at what it takes to change culture, you need to look at what it takes to change the individuals who, together, are the people. This is an insight that is not fully embraced in organizational change theory or organizational development. Organizational change in this sense would imply a change of the organization’s purpose or structure, activities or locations, but not of its people. Organizational development cannot mean that its people develop but that the organization grows through new products and services, locations, contracts, partnerships etc.

The reason I feel this distinction is important is that I have a hunch that, by peeling back this layer called “organization” when we talk about changing the culture, we may discover true levers of change to enable cultural shifts in organizations. I am fascinated by this as I still don’t know how our own cultural change came about at BSL. And I was there closely observing it! What happened in these dark months and what came out and into the light after it? When trying to answer this question, examples of individual human actions come to mind. Acts of courage, love and care. All of which are entirely unrelated to any role or accountability. These acts of humanity are what have touched me and possibly others – as individuals, not in a role or a responsibility. Alex sharing his new Chinese tea leaves and showing me how to pour a cup of tea as I walk in tired from a long outside meeting. Denitsa standing up and giving me a big hug as I walk in to say hi. Yasmina cracking a joke as I walk by that makes me stop and see how she is doing, as a person not as a colleague delivering her to-do list. It is Aurea that closes her work notebook and shares how her friend is doing.

These moments which are entirely and totally disconnected from any follow-on comment that says, “and hey, would you mind printing me x and quickly running me this or that report?” or, “hey, since we are chatting, have you heard back from x on y?”. We don’t do that anymore. We were forced to separate these kinds of conversations by learning how to have power-free conversations among roles in a journey to replace our hierarchy. Awkward, coded language that has nothing human or fun in it. But it does its job, it provides a safe space for anybody with a certain responsibility to do the very best she can to embrace this responsibility with all the passion and knowledge and freedom to innovate that she can put into it, given other priorities of other responsibilities she may also have. What happened in these dark hours is that we reduced all of our conversations to such coded, awkward language, and next to that each of us dealt with the pain and the frustration that such cold exchanges created in our own ways. To all the varying degrees of incapacity that humans possess. Some started gossiping, others started to moan and complain, some formed small groups that tried to super-analyze it all and solve it for the team, some retreated in their caves, feeling alone and rejected by a system that was inhuman. All of us, in one way or another, felt alone, helpless and overwhelmed, and all of us reacted to it through the large variety of dark shadows that are a part of our human characters.

Until the human light started to shine through and some started to reach out in caring conversations, daring to question endless complaints by asking, “do you want help or do you just want to complain?”; some started to share their pains and how they went about dealing with them with their coach or in therapy. Somebody organized tea for everybody. Somebody else brought in a homemade cake. Some people started to have really honest and painful conversations with each other. In these early days, everything felt raw and we were all exhausted. Emotionally affected. Small groups of individuals formed who felt more affinity for each other and much energy was spent discussing a problem nobody that nobody could name. Pockets of resistance against the transformation became loud and forceful and the pain was in front of all of us, all the time. The atmosphere was dim, and some people fell ill. They could not understand the coldness of Holacracy and the inhumanity it seemed to require. People who didn’t perform were suddenly very exposed and position power didn’t protect anymore. Difficult talks requiring courage were needed to end long working relationships that probably could have been addressed long before but were hidden due to an overlap with personal relationships. More and more we learned to separate these relationships and slowly, very slowly, too slowly, the benefits started to emerge.

We had focused on identifying work benefits – and we reported many of these, experiencing them with increasing rapidity. The degree and extent of self-initiative is simply mind-blowing. We have moved from a group of people who each felt overwhelmed with the amount of work we needed to do to a group of people open to listen to new ideas, suggestions and opportunities, and ourselves coming up with innovative new, additional things we can do. Where did this space suddenly come from? Our plates were full before – I had long stopped daring to bring in new projects as I feared the reaction of a team that was clearly already overstretched. How come these same people now had ideas far beyond what I had ever dreamt of bringing in? How come, solutions for problems nobody even acknowledged before suddenly were implemented without anybody even knowing? How come costs were reduced where before there was no alternative? How come a suggestion for improvement was suddenly met with “tell me more” rather than “I have no time”? These are all “just” work-related benefits that brought tremendous benefit to the organization and these deserve being studied to be better understood.

What we didn’t focus on was what would happen to our relationships. And this is where more miracles happened. Our human relations have deepened; we know today more about each other than we ever did before and we are forming more of a family in a true sense than ever before. It is wrong to use “we” and “us” as a term. This phenomenon is an individual one and builds on the individual care for somebody else. Massimo and I are sharing the difficult moments we both experience right now seeing our parents with health issues. Carlo and Branko share their worries about their kids during our upcoming company ski-weekend. Denitsa inspired us with daily emails in the holiday months sharing insights about positive psychology from her current Master’s studies. As I present a key note at a big business event, I see the faces of my colleagues in the audience whose smiles encourage me to say what I want to say in clear language. We are all signed up for a course in non-violent communication. Our stakeholders (students and faculty) tell us that it is easier to engage with us, that we listen better and have more time and space for them as human beings, not just as transactional problems. I notice myself that I am careful in responding with a personal comment to emails that I receive. I am friendlier, warmer and more open, and I like that very much.

In our team, a feeling has spread that says “we are cool” and we are proud to belong together. Strength-spotting has become a past-time. Laughter is easier, humor more present and even after a long, tough day at work, I walk out feeling much better in my body and certainly in my heart and soul. Denitsa had asked me midday, “how is your day going” and I was profoundly touched. What a nice question and rather than complaining about all the things that I had going on, I took a quiet breath and I realized, I was having a really good day!

There is a miracle that has happened in front of my eyes and I don’t understand it quite yet. I remain curious and do want to understand it better. For if I can describe it better, others can benefit from such “organizational change” that really is “people change”, and that would be just great! My hunch is that the differentiation between the organization and the group of individuals that make up the people is key. When I worked for Alcoa, it was not the organization I admired and adored as much as its people. It was not “being the best aluminum company in the world” that made my soul sing, it was the positive opportunities I was given, and the leader’s interest in hearing a twenty-four-year old’s opinion on strategy.