Collaboration for Sustainability 4: How?

May 13, 2010 Leave a comment


|Photo by Flowery *L*u*z*a*||

For the past few weeks, in a series of Thursday posts, we’ve addressed what it takes to tap the full potential of collaboration to shift to more environmentally sustainable ways of living and working.  We’ve explored the importance of bringing diverse systemic perspectives together and developing shared identities and values as a way of achieving greater ecological intelligence and commitment.  And as a friend of mine says, you can bring great groups together with the best of intentions and still end up with nothing or a mess.  So what else can we put into place to help ensure we reach the sustainable ends we seek?

Here I turn to a number of different sources for hints:

  • Generate a shared vision to guide and hold collaborative efforts together, then “back cast” from there.  Taking a “problem-solving” approach instead of a “vision realization” approach may limit and dampen collective efforts.  I just had this confirmed by the recent experience of a NOAA Climate Program employee.  Incidentally, if you want to watch a compelling pitch about the importance of vision, see Bill Moyers’ recent penultimate sign off from The Journal (we will miss you, Bill!).
  • The experiences of Natural Step communities indicate that not waiting too long on action, having some quick wins, and planning in cycles are keys to keeping momentum going and people engaged.  This speaks to the importance of getting away from pursuing perfection and being willing to engage in prototyping and tweaking solutions.  Furthermore, having people work across “subject areas” (in communities – land conservation, affordable housing, transportation, education, etc.; in organizations – Learning and Development, Marketing, CSR, etc.) helps to ensure that actions have systemic impact.
  • Fritjof Capra echoes and extends this last point when he says that networks are key to sustainability.  We can maximize the potential of diversity in a system if there is interdependence, a vibrant matrix of relationships, and cyclical flows of energy and information (feedback loops).  If actors are disconnected, information flow impeded, and/or decision-making overly controlled or centralized, energy and intelligence is lost.
  • Lilian Alessa, Andrew Kliskey, and Mark Altaweel have also identified persistence and consistency as being key to maintaining the resilience of sustainability efforts.  Having too much in and out flow of participants can halt progress.  So building stable community and strong bonds that keep people engaged is critical.
  • In addition, encouraging a “learning orientation” and curiosity throughout the process, will help open people to new ways of thinking and doing, and reduce unproductive blame and competition.  This point, and the others above suggest the value of having process stewardship (design and facilitation) that can help create the conditions that will tap the best that individuals and the collective have to offer.

What would you add?

No Comments

  • Gibran says:

    Thanks Curtis! I appreciate your lifting up “process stewardship,” I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about how to re-structure organizational practices so that the steps you outline become a natural part of doing work. How to build an architecture to facilitate the change?

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks, Gibran. Your question about organizational practices is timely. Today we take a bunch of cross-sector leaders through a GeoDome experience. I went through it last night and it raises some profound questions about the perspectives we utilize (and miss) in our day to day lives. I like David McConville’s quote – “We are simultaneously at the center and nowhere.” This takes the Ladder of Inference to a whole new level. Now how to incorporate this perspectival shift into organizations? How to hold the whole in front of us, if even through reminders that it is there, and then let form follow the new functions we understand we must fill?

  • Beth Tener says:

    Building on your point about the importance of pursuing action on tangible projects quickly (the Natural Step bullet), it’s important to focus collective action on the key areas that have impact and where small effort creates large results or enables greater progress. One challenge I see is that cross-department groups, such as Green Teams, zero in on visible changes, such as eliminating Styrofoam cups in the office kitchen, or get lost in long lists of potential actions and miss making major change in the areas with most environmental impact. Cross-sector or department initiatives often face challenges when the assembled group does not have the organizational authority or collective will/power to implement their vision.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks, Beth, for your insight. Guess we should throw in the important element of having key decision-makers on board and willing to delegate authority to network teams. I also like the idea of small efforts creating large results. I’m reminded of that permaculture notion of helping the system do what it does best.

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