Building Sustainable Legacies


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Pessimism in the developed world runs rampant

This disturbing declaration came from a 2017 study of millennials by Deloitte, a financial and risk management company.  Deloitte has been surveying millennials for the past 6 years and this year they found more general anxiety about the future than ever before.  The concerns expressed included terrorism, income inequality, crime and corruption and climate change.  Interestingly, the participants regard businesses as a force for social impact, however, they believe that companies are falling short in applying their capabilities to alleviating society’s challenges. So where is the disconnect between what millennials believe corporations could contribute versus what they think they are doing to address these overwhelming social issues?

Last month Katrin Muff’s blog was related to this theme.  She wrote about her frustration with companies that cannot see beyond their own short-term self-interest.  Obviously, she is not alone with this grievance.

Over the past few years, the news has been filled with stories about companies that acted solely in their own self-interest with calamitous consequences.  Consider the Volkswagen emissions scandal or BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These companies flagrantly neglected all responsibility to the environment in pursuit of profits.  And, thus, both companies suffered reputation and financial damage.

While most companies do not commit fraud as was the case with VW, many do operate as if their only reason for existing is to create as much wealth as possible for their shareholders. These companies describe themselves by the products they make and the profits they generate. Consequently, they are in danger of becoming irrelevant to customers, employees and investors, all of whom are becoming increasingly impatient with corporations that lack any social purpose.

On the other hand, many companies do take their responsibilities to society very seriously.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a widely-recognized expert on organizations, says that an increasing number of successful companies emphasize purpose, values and long-term institution building.  These purpose-driven companies believe that they are inherently connected to society at large, and thus have obligations as members of society beyond mere economic transactions.  That is not to imply that financial success is unimportant to these companies.  In fact, Kanter says that they embrace financial success partly if not wholly so that they can carry out their commitments to society.[1]  And in fact evidence from a 2014 Deloitte study shows that companies focusing on a broader purpose are more likely than others to achieve success for the long-term. The confidence that stakeholders place in these purpose-driven companies tends to lead to investments and growth.

Most of us want to work for companies with a distinct purpose and clear values.  A  2016 study of purpose in the workplace conducted  conducted by the consulting arm of PWC, showed that  a large percentage of all generations in the workforce, not just millennials, want to find purpose in their work. The study emphasized the following:

“A truly purpose-driven company must have purpose as its guidepost for decision-making—including the opportunities it decides to pursue and not pursue—to demonstrate commitment to responsible business leadership.”

Unilever, the company that Katrin cited in her blog last month, serves as a great example of a multinational corporation that lives its purpose every day. Their vision is as follows:

“Unilever has a simple but clear purpose – to make sustainable living commonplace. We believe this is the best long-term way for our business to grow.”

This purpose is embedded in all of Unilever’s decision-making including how they interact with their shareholders, as well as how they develop and package new products.

It is time for all companies to critically examine their roles in society. Certainly, at times our global challenges can seem overwhelming so it is no wonder that we will see alarming headlines about millennials’ pessimism! Nevertheless, we can’t become so discouraged that we are paralyzed.  It is time for all companies to act with purpose.

Of course, the business community alone can’t fix everything.  However, those of us in this community can and should contribute to finding solutions to our world’s challenges, which, at the same time, will help us make our businesses more profitable and sustainable.  And those not working in the business community can and should hold us accountable for more than merely creating wealth for our shareholders.

[1] Kanter, R.M. (2015) How purpose-based companies master change for sustainability. In R. Henderson, R Gulati and M. Tushman (Eds.), Leading Sustainable Change (pp.11-139). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

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.

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“Why School?” Collaboratory in Stockholm

We arrived in Thursday evening, August 21, 2014 for a 4-day Collaboratory event. The water looked dark, deep and much colder than turqouise water I have just returned from. Yet in great contrast, the people are super friendly and engaging. The four days ahead were structured as follows: Day 1 was our LiFT internal pre-collaboratory callibration day, Day 2 was the big public event of the “Why School?” Collaboratory. At the end of Day 2 we would leave to „the island“, Ekskäret is a private island transformed into a personal and societal development center by its visionary owner Thomas Bjorkman, where we would be staying for Day 3 and 4.

During the preparatory Day 1, we learned about the specific challenges around the school issue in Sweden. I was surprised to learn about how badly the voucher system works (each student is free to select his/her school of choice and brings the related government funding to the chosen school). This liberal practice seems to have brought down the educationsl level due to the fact that a number of venture capitalists have invested in new educational institutions and have focussed on maximizing their return rather than investing in facilities and quality teachers. And I had always thought that a Voucher system could help innovate the Swiss schooling system.

In addition, the facilitation team walked us step by step through their vision and resulting schedule for the next day. They had made interesting changes to the basic Collaboratory and I became very curious about how this amendment to the Collaboratory would work out.

Why School Collaboaratory in Stockholm

Picture 1: Pre-collaboratory day among LiFT team with Collaboratoy books in center

The 1-day Collaboratory session moderated by Jonathan Reams (Norway), Christiane Seuhs-Schoeller (Vienna) and Anne Caspari (Basel) started in a plenuary setting with a short film on being “awe-struck”. Jonathan set the stage for the day with his deep, reflective introduction hinting at the opportunity that schools could be places that kids leave “awe-struck”. Both his reflective tone and future orientation brought a light energy that somehow guided us through the entire day.

Overview of the large meeting space

Picture 2: Overview of the large meeting space

The room was large enough to have three different spaces set-up in advance. The 70+ participants shifted from the plenary to the Collaboratory circle setting (see picture 2), where selected experts highlighted important critical perspectives on the subject of school in Sweden (see picture 3). We had the founder of the School-Spring movement, an enlightened teacher, a school-drop out with an appetite to bring about change in the school system, a highly committed CEO who was concerned about graduates, an academic from Austria with a European perspective on school challenges and responsible leadership. What surprised me most was the significant degree of mutual respect, the appreciative inquiry among these experts. While there could have been much reason for debate and dispute, the tone was incredibly constructive.

The Collaboratory Circle

Picture 3: The Collaboratory Circle

In a next phase, these insights were discussed and reflected on in eight small group sessions of 6-8 participants, allowing again for each participant to be heard and to remain engaged. Leaders from each team shared back in the Collaboratory circle after lunch their key findings, setting the stage for the visioning phase that Christiane mastered beautifully, taking us on a journey of creative exploration.

Rather than debriefing the visioning in the circle, the facilitation team introduced a highly effective, one-to-one debriefing and sharing by having people get up and reflect on 3 key questions in every-changing pair settings (see picture 4). This brought not only movement and thus energy into the room, but also allowed every single participant to be personally concerned and involved, bringing individual and collective visions and ideas quickly to the surface.

Picture 4: Inter-active, dynamic debriefing after the visioning exercise

Picture 4: Inter-active, dynamic debriefing after the visioning exercise

In a dynamic open brainstorming session, the many ideas were first collected and subsequently grouped into major themes. Using open space and the law of two feet (you go where you feel you are adding most value), a variety of theme-teams formed to work on prototypes to translate these ideas into concrete projects that could be implemented. I was most touched to see how the CEO and the drop-out student had hit it off and how they collaborated naturally and easily together in a new exiting project. My secret guess is that beyond everything we had achieved for the school issue in Sweden, that we had witnessed a match made in heaven between these two individuals and I am willing to bet that we are going to hear great things from this young high potential who had shown courage beyond imagination when dropping out of school a few years back to figure out where and how he wanted to spend his energy and drive (I am leaving out names on purpose).

Picture 5: our transfer on a small taxi-boat to the far-away island Ekskäret

Picture 5: our transfer on a small taxi-boat to the far-away island Ekskäret

At the end of the long Collaboratory day, our international LiFT team took off in taxi-boats to Ekskäret (see picture 5), the amazing small island a good two hours away from Stockholm. Karin Finnson, our local LiFT host, had arranged the transfer and for the host Thomas Bjorkman to welcome us to this magic island.

We spent two more days at the island with day 1 focussed on evaluating the „why school“ Collaboratory event and learnings for next sessions and day 2 looking forward to our next Collaboratory session scheduled in November in Vienna, Austria where we were going to look in „the future of organizations“. The playful attitude we had all developed around the Collaboratory methods had worked well. Increasingly, our LiFT team has become comfortable with the philosophy and methodology (see chapter 22 in the „Collaboratory“ book[1] where I had used our Norway LiFT collaboratory to outline a narrative roadmap for designing and delivering a collaboratory).

Picture 6: Welcome with hot tea in the Collaboratory circle at Ekskäret island

Picture 6: Welcome with hot tea in the Collaboratory circle at Ekskäret island

[1]  Muff, K. (ed) (2014) : “The Collaboratory – a co-creative stakeholder engagement process for solving complex problems”, Greenleaf Publishing, Sheffield UK


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Kicking off Collaboratories in Asia – Towards “Green Living in Hong Kong”

Riding up the elevator of the brand new building of the Design Faculty at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University sets the stage: 4th floor Collaboratoy, 8th floor Innovation Think Tank. I haven’t seen the use of “Collaboratory” formally used to designate an entire floor of a building! We must be in the right space! Clearly Cees de Bont from the Design Faculty and Alison Llyod from the Business School are not only an experienced but also a very creative and effective team. Everything was set for a memorable first Collaboratory event in Asia!

Cees’ design students have worked over the past weeks to create more than half a dozen of benches made out of recycled or repurposed material. Special acknowledgment goes to Claudius Bensch, Art Director of the project, for developing the original Bench Circle installation concept. As we walked into the space, our jaws dropped at the sight of these benches! True beauty and an astounding variety! Each bench was designed by a known designer and produced by design students. Here is a short time-laps film that shows them at work:

Allison’s business students had masterfully arranged the space into the signature inner circle held by two rows of outer circle chairs. They had helped to mobilize the key stakeholders for the event and ensured that all concerned parties in Hong Kong concerned by “Green Living in Hong Kong” were not only present but had been briefed in great detail on what to expect. An energized group of approx. 50 engaged citizens, representatives of business, consulting, real estate, NGO, social entrepreneurship as well as various relevant faculty members and students was curious to see what would happen next. Everything was set for an intense 3 hours of co-creation!

The first hour served to lay out all the different perspectives on the topic of what Green Living in Hong Kong might mean, why it was possible, impossible, covering current important issues such as air pollution and the impact of the increasing inequality, the high dependency on the “Hong Kong shopping center”, the dramatically negative impact of the recent frugality strategy of the Chinese and the sky-high real estate prices that drove social entrepreneurs out of town. Yet, the fact that 40% of the land was labelled as national parks and only 30% of the surface was actually built, opened up a discussion around the potential of Hong Kong with its 70+ islands, beaches and many hills and hiking trails for every level of difficulty. We heard stories of permaculture, roof-top gardens, and the need to go beyond organic food to radically re-localize food (the footprint of organic food not being sufficient to balance population growth). A young social entrepreneur shared his initiative of in-house gardening and tourist operator a dream around eco-tourism. The elevator was introduced as a highly sustainable solution to save land (vertical city) and elegantly delegating the cost of mobility infrastructure from government to private investors (well, that’s the real-estator’s perspective). The idea that if green choices need to come more attractive (adding a price on unsustainable living), they would take off. The question of how design can help advance green living in HK. The dilemma of the importance of education and the fact that it takes too long to produce results. The businessman’s pragmatic perspective: “how much are we willing to pay to make Green Living a reality?” countered by the psychologist who believes that it is all a question of behavioral change. One sentiment expressed the rather upbeat sense of the discussion best: “If there’s anybody who can do it, it is Hong Kong!”, this despite the fact that a concerned voice reminded us that returning to a simple living also implied consuming less and that companies would need to radically reinvent themselves. A final voice made a historical comparison, reminding us that in 1972 the Hong Kong government campaigned against corruption which was considered mission impossible and today in Hong Kong corruption was largely gone. So why not campaign against unsustainable living? Well…

After a break, we shifted into the visioning phase of the process and went on a journey where we collectively dreamt up a Hong Kong that had realized Green Living. The traditional sharing round among all participants was among the richest I have experienced today: a new vision for Hong Kong came alive! A vision where Hong Kong would adopt Singapore’s positioning as an education hub to become Asia’s Sustainability or Green Living Hub. Conscious of the fact that Hong Kong in many ways plays a role model function for many cities and people of mainland China, the power of such a transformative change was palpable. Descriptions of such a future vision of Hong Kong included clean air and blue skies, a slower pace and fresh vegetables at hand anywhere to eat. Shopping as a way to secure happiness was replaced by more profound offers that would lead to a more sustainable well-being and happiness. People would come to Hong Kong to “slow up”, to recharge, re-energize and to co-create and develop great ideas.

In the final third phase of the Collaboratory, we asked the question: so what can we concretely do in the next 2-3 months to make steps towards this utopian future. To enable this, we transformed the center space into an entrepreneurial brainstorming space: at least 20 ideas were developed and any last signs of Asian shyness disappeared. The spark of a shared and embodied vision had triggered not only enthusiasm but also creativity. I was challenged to summarize and group the many ideas into 8 main prototypes of which each participant would choose one he or she wanted to spend the last hour of the Collaboratory exploring. We initially thought to vote the best 4 of these 8 ideas but there was enough energy for all of them that we split the circle into 8 sub-circles and empowered each group to self-organize and further develop their ideas. After 40 minutes each team was ready with a solid prototype idea and had identified one responsible person among them who was willing to carry-forward the project until Alison and Cees would decide on how to proceed with a next Collaboratory event to further develop if not all, at least some of them.

Here is an overview of all the ideas:

  • Introducing positive discrimination coupled with transparency to enable green organizations to perform better and attract the talent and to individuals to the incentive to change behavior. A radical shift requires radical support including the development of broader well-being measures on the macro and micro economic levels (lead: Shrikant Ramakrishnan, four members)
  • Eco-tourism: slow up in Hong Kong and relax into great ideas! Various steps needed: a) turning the city green (greening the roofs), accessible hiking trails for all levels, transforming hospital into wellness clinics, turning public spaces into oasis, taking the noise out, developing eco-tourism in the islands, etc. (lead: Stella Kwan, four members)
  • Transforming universities into practical learning centers in society, by reducing the current disconnect particularly in CSR, changing the pedagogy to include in-company learning, integrating self-realization as an integral part of learning (lead: Alison Lloyd, nine members)
  • Fostering cross-sectional stakeholder dialogue through collaboratory discussions: not a solution in itself but an enabler to contribute to a new mind frame and to rally for a common vision (lead: Philo Alto, two members)
  • Copy-cating the best green solutions and branding for massive globe scaling, by applying a rigorous process of a) what is the problem), b) who is the leader in the world to solve this, c) how can we adapt to Hong Kong, d) how can we brand to enable scaling, e) how do we commercialize globally – example: Starbucks vertical farming wall (lead: Lydia Guett, six members)
  • Developing a sharing culture towards a new governing model by bringing in relevant ideas to Hong Kong and by working with students as activists and promoting a culture of sharing, e.g. electronics (lead: Ming Ho, three members)
  • Becoming a personal role model first and then contribute to the sharing culture (see 4), supported by government actions such as theme Sundays to re-develop relationships at all levels as they used to be (lead: Match Chen, six members)
  • Developing a new mind frame: business needs new managers and leaders, current people in charge can’t lead the transformation, a higher consciousness is needed, achieving this by a significant focus on personal health for every employee at all levels (top particularly) since a better life will result in a better business as it triggers a shift in focus; also: embracing the consumer-side of the people by initiating new consumer demands which will result in new business opportunities (lead: Eric Chu, 2 members)

Cees and Alison have expressed an interest to integrate the first three into their current project development structures which are available in both Faculties. Furthermore, the PolyU business school has platforms on which other prototypes could be further developed. Both of them will communicate with everybody involved in the Collaboratory shortly to ensure that these prototype will start to be realized where possible and where the teams feel energized to further work on them.

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Walking into the Silverbox Conference room at the ICON hotel in Hong Kong the next day felt VERY similar to walking into the UN RIO+20 PRME Business Education conference back in June 2012 when we launched the 50+20 agenda: 3 benches were lined up as I walked off the elevator towards the registration desk and the back of the room was displaying with 6 more benches. Awesome! It is amazing what kind of difference some real art can make. More on the conference: http://www.bsl-lausanne.ch/news/school-news/events-and-conferences/bsls-dean-gives-keynote-speech-at-conference-on-renewing-business-education-in-asia


Corporation 2020 – a movement to change the way that corporations operate

I encourage you to read a fantastically well written blog post on – Corporation 2020 by Dr. Madelon Evers