Archive for “Book reviews”

Agree to differ

 

I’m listening to Matthew Taylor’s Agree to Differ on iplayer.  It’s hard not to get caught up in the subject matter – in this case fracking – but I’m listening out for process.

I agree with Matthew Taylor‘s contention that in most media coverage of controversial topics “the protagonists spend more time attacking and caricaturing each other than they do addressing the heart of the issue”.  I also think that the orthodox approach, which is to set up discussion and disagreement as debate, with winners and losers and settled points of view, may be entertaining but is rarely a way of finding the best understanding.

In his own blog, Matthew writes about the origins of the radio series:

‘Imagine’ I thought ‘if we applied the kind of techniques used in mediation to shed much less heat and much more light?’ Vital to that method is requiring that the protagonists resist caricaturing each other’s position – something which immediately inflames debate – and focus instead on clarifying their own stance.

So what is the process that Matthew has followed in this refreshing radio programme?

  • Matthew is cast in the role of mediator, and our mediatees in this opening episode were George Monbiot and James Woudhuysen – one in principle at least in favour of fracking, and one opposed to it.
  • There was a round of introductions: personal, anecdotal and focusing on the very early inspiration rooted in childhood experience.  Matthew himself didn’t provide the same kind of introduction: he’s facilitating the conversation, rather than joining in. This helped to humanise George and James: it’s hard to take against these small boys with the mutual connections to woodpeckers (you have to listen to it!).
  • Each mediatee was invited to give a short opening statement, uninterrupted. A bit like a courtroom or staged debate, but also with echoes of the uninterrupted opportunity to speak that you might have in setting up a “thinking environment”.
  • We were told to expect exploration of the things the protagonists disagreed about.  This might seem counterintuitive: if what’s being sought is agreement, how does exploring disagreement help. But wait…
  • George and James were asked to summarise back the essence of each other’s argument, and to find something in it that they do agree with.
  • After a round of this, our mediator then summarised back what he’d heard about the remaining disagreement, and George and James had the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings in the summary.  James took the opportunity a couple of times.
  • At one point, Matthew sets out a ground rule, in response to James starting to say something outside the process: “The one rule we have here is that you’re not allowed to say what you think George believes.”  Nicely done, and an interesting insight into the process being followed.
  • This process was then repeated for a second area of disagreement.
  • So for each key part of the topic, we heard about areas of agreement (e.g. “in favour of nuclear and renewables” and “neither of you sympathetic to NIMBYism”) and we understood more precisely the remaining disagreement.
  • At the end, Matthew summarised back what would characterise the most extreme positions – investing in or protesting against fracking. Which I found a bit strange as the sign-off: perhaps the demands of the medium for positions and opposition were too strong to be ignored.

Linearity in an aural medium

I wondered about the limitations of radio (or other aural-only media) in that you can only focus on one thing at a time: no post-it brainstorms or mind maps here, where all facets of a question can be presented at once.  I find this very useful in face-to-face facilitation, for getting everything out on the table from all perspectives, before beginning to sort it.  Does the “one-at-a-time” nature of speech reinforce the sense of opposition?

Well done Matthew Taylor for bringing a different approach to understanding a controversial question.  Future episodes are on vivisection and the future of Jerusalem. Catch them on BBC Radio 4 Wednesday’s at 8pm and Saturday at 10.15pm, or on the iplayer.

 

How we do things round here

Organisational culture. Where to begin?

Like behaviour change and values, it’s one of those phenomena of human experience that promises to unlock sustainability if you can only work out how to harness it, but tantalises by just not being reducible to simple rules or mechanistic predictions.

The canny editorial team over at The Environmentalist invited me to write a two-part feature to introduce IEMA members to this scotch mist, and I love a challenge like that.  Even though I know the result will be partial and full of holes, I’d love to help people begin to navigate this treacherous territory with a few useful landmarks.

So I had a go, and part one is available here and part two here.

Essential sources

The research and planning process for the article was fun too, once I’d decided to focus right down on something manageable. (After all, this was for a 1,400 word feature, not a thesis.)

I chose to re-read Edgar Schein‘s classic Organizational Culture and Leadership. The resulting mind map of notes is two A4 sheets of close tiny handwriting. I also finally got round to properly reading William Bridges’ Character of Organisations, which I was introduced to by Lindsey Colbourne (I still have your copy Lindsey!) when she was helping Sciencewise think about designing approaches to public dialogue which match the organisational cultures found in Whitehall Departments and government agencies.  Her insightful background research report on the “Departmental Dialogue Index” is here and the summary paper containing the diagnostic tool is here.

Schein’s book is wonderful for its stories. I enjoyed being alongside him as a reader, as he gradually realises how little he understands the organisations he is exploring. He opens himself up to not knowing, thereby allowing himself to hear the new (more accurate) interpretations of the behaviours and artefacts.  There’s something of the anthropologist about him, understanding organisations by being present in them as a participant observer.

Bridges’ approach starts from a framework more commonly used to understand the individual – the MBTI’s contrasting pairs of judging / perceiving; sensing / intuition; extraversion / introversion; thinking / feeling.  He takes this and looks at how it might manifest in organisations.

This is arguably a less intellectually rigorous approach than Schein’s. I definitely find myself drawn to the open-endedness and ambiguity of the anthropologist. But there is also something attractively pragmatic in Bridges’ work. And the book contains a questionnaire that readers can use to assess an organisation – good for people (and organisations) which like applied theory.

Sharing TUI Travel’s journey

Many thanks to Rosie Bristow and Sarah Holloway who took the time to talk to me about how understanding organisational culture within TUI Travel helped them to tailor their sustainability work to be more effective.  As well as reading about this in my article, you can see the enthusiastic buy-in they’ve generated here.

 

If not me, then who? Leadership and sustainable development

Holding out for a hero

We’re in a hole and we’re not making headway on the huge challenges that face us as a species and as a society.  Our so-called leaders shy away from action which isn’t incremental and easy.  We’re caught in a web of interlocking dependencies shoring up the status quo.  And meanwhile environmental limits are being breached every way we turn.  Why doesn’t somebody DO SOMETHING?

But hang on, what if we are the people we’ve been waiting for?

We, too, can be tempered radicals, positive deviants or social intrapreneurs – different labels for essentially the same ambiguous role: change makers on the inside of our organisation or community, wherever this may be.

This antidote to ‘great man’ leadership is explored in two books: The Positive Deviant (Parkin) helps you prepare and plan, Leadership for Sustainability (Marshall et al) is an edited collection of tales from fellow travellers, shared with a degree of honesty and openness which is unexpected outside the safety of a coaching conversation.

Who will show leadership?

Both books rightly assert that leadership can come from anywhere.  The leader may be the boss, but leadership is something any of us can practice.  And that’s lucky, because we need whole systems to change, not just individual organisations.  And systems don’t have a boss.  Leadership is necessarily distributed throughout the system, even if some people have more power than others.

Parkin’s positive deviant is someone who does the right thing

despite being surrounded by the wrong institutions, the wrong processes and stubbornly uncooperative people”.

They work to change the rules of the game.  Rather than waiting for stepping stones to appear they chuck in rocks, building a path for others as they go.

Effective leadership comes from surprising places within hierarchical structures, and can arise in situations where there isn’t any formal organisation at all.  This makes the positive deviant quite close to the tempered radical, yet Meyerson’s work is a surprising omission from Parkin’s index and bibliography.

Marshall et al see leadership

“as much [in] the vigilante consumer demanding to know where products have come from as [in] the chief executive promoting environmentally aware corporate practices.”

So none of us is off the hook.

What kind of leaders do we need?

If we are all in a position to show leadership, which qualities do we need to hone, to help us be really good at it?

Parkin is clear that we need to be ethical and effective.

Ethical

As Cooper points out in one of the chapters of Leadership for Sustainability, the scale of the transformation implied by how bad things are now means that doing things right is not enough: we need to do the right things.

It is not enough to show leadership merely in the service of your own organisation or community. With sustainability leadership the canvas is all humanity and the whole planet (All Life On Earth including Us, as Parkin puts it).  Regular readers of this blog, and participants on the Post-graduate Certificate in Sustainable Business will know that this is one of the distinctions I make between ‘any old organisational change’ and ‘organisational change for sustainable development’.  See the slide 22 in the slide show here for more on this and other tensions for sustainability change makers.

To do this, the Positive Deviant has a ‘good enough’ understanding of a range of core sustainability information and concepts, and Parkin summarises a familiar set of priority subjects.  Less familiar are the snippets of sustainability literacy from classical antiquity which liven things up a bit: Cleopatra’s use of orange peel as a contraceptive and Plato’s observations of local climatic changes caused by overenthusiastic logging.

If you already know this big picture sustainability stuff, you may feel you can safely skip Parkin’s first, third and fourth section.  Not so fast.  I read these on the day DCLG published its risible presumption in favour of sustainable development.  DCLG’s failure to mention environmental limits and the equating of sustainable development with sustainable building is a caution: perhaps people who might be expected to have a good understanding of sustainability should read this section, whether they think they need it or not!

Effective

We need to understand the kinds of problems we’re facing.  Parkin offers use Grint’s useful sense-making triad to understand different kinds of problems which need different approaches:

  • tame (familiar, solvable, limited uncertainty),
  • wicked (more intractable, complex, lots of uncertainty, no clear solutions without downsides) and
  • critical (emergency, urgent, very large) problems.

The problems of unsustainability are very largely wicked (e.g. breaking environmental limits), and some are critical (e.g. extreme weather events).

Complex, uncertain and intractable situations require experimentation and agility, according to Marshall et al.  Parkin echoes this:

“By definition, we’ve not done sustainable development before … so we are all learning as we go.”

Marshall et al go further:

“we doubt if change for sustainability can often be brought about by directed, intentional action, deliberately followed through.”

Superficial change may result, but not systemic transformation.  So leadership demands that we embrace uncertainty and release control.  This is pretty much what I’m trying to articulate here, so you’d expect me to agree. I do.

Parkin is dismissive of understandings of leadership in the context of chaos or distributed systems.  She may be right that it is a perverse choice to lead in this way if you are within an organisation which functions well in a predictable external context.  But as we have seen, leadership is most urgently required in situations which are much less simple than this, where there isn’t an obvious person with a mandate to be ‘the leader’.  Dispersed leadership is a more accurate description of reality and a more practical theory in these situations.  There are some well-thought of organisational consultants and theorists worth reading on this.  For example Chris Rodgers and Richard Seel have both influenced my thinking.  AMED’s Organisations&People journal regularly carries great articles if you want to explore this side of things.

From the installation of secret water-saving hippos in Cabinet Office (Goulden in Leadership for Sustainability) to John Bird setting up the Big Issue or Wangari Maathai founding of the “deliciously subversive” Green Belt Movement (some of Parkin’s choices as Positive Deviant role models), the reader can’t help but be personally challenged: how do I compare, in my leadership?  Am I ethical? Am I effective?

How will we get them?

How can we make ourselves more effective as leaders, where-ever we find ourselves?   How can we help others to show leadership?

These questions bring us to the educational and personal development aspect of these books.

Education and training

Leadership for Sustainability is a collection of personal stories gleaned from people who have been through the MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice at the University of Bath’s School of Management (succeeded by Ashridge Business School’s MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility and the MA in Leadership for Sustainability at Lancaster University School of Management).  Parkin designed Forum for the Future’s Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development.  So you can expect that both books have something to say about how we educate our future leaders.

Parkin dissects the ways business schools have betrayed their students and the organisations they go on to lead.  Unquestioningly sticking to a narrow focus of value, not understanding the finite nature of the world we live in, and avoiding a critique of the purpose of business and economy, by and large they continue to produce future leaders with little or no appreciation of the crash they are contributing to.

Marshall and her colleagues have shown leadership in this field, using a Trojan horse approach by setting up their MSc in the heart of a traditional business school, and seeding other courses.  Positive deviance in practice!

Personal development

Formal training aside, we can all improve our sustainability leadership skills.

Parkin argues that as well as having a ‘good enough’ level of sustainability literacy, Positive Deviants need to practice four habits of thought.  These are:

  • Resilience – an understanding of ecosystems, environmental limits and their resilience, rather than the personal robustness of the change maker.
  • Relationships – understanding and strengthening the relationships between people, and between us and the ecosystems which support us.
  • Reflection – noticing the impact of our actions and changing what we do to be more effective, as a reflective practitioner.
  • Reverence – an awe for the universe of which we are a part

Action research

Of those four habits of thought, reflection is the one closest to the heart of Marshall’s Leadership for Sustainability approach.

Marshall, Coleman and Reason are committed to an action research approach, seeing it as

“an orientation towards research and practice in which engagement, curiosity and questioning are brought to bear on significant issues in the service of a better world.”

In her chapter, Downey reminds us of the ‘simple instruction at the heart’ of action research

“take action about something you care about, and learn from it.”

Marshall et al tell us that action research was central to the structure and tutoring on their MSc.  I have to confess to being unclear about the distinctions between action inquiry, action research and action learning.  Answers in the comments section, please!

Marshall et al’s action learning chapters are useful to anyone involved in helping develop others as managers, coaches, consultants, teachers, trainers and so on – required reading, in fact, for those wrong-headed business schools which Parkin criticises so vehemently.

The power of the action research approach shines through in the collection of twenty-nine stories, which made this book – despite the somewhat heavy going of the theoretical chapters – the most compelling sustainability book I’ve read in a long time.  People have taken action about things they care about, and they have learnt from it.

Their stories demonstrate that we encourage people to show leadership in part by allowing them to be humble and to experiment, not by pretending that only the perfect can show leadership.  The stories do not trumpet an approach or sell us a technique. They are travellers’ tales for people who’ll see themselves in the narrative, and be inspired and comforted by it.

What does it feel like, to be this kind of leader?

Does this kind of leader sound like you yet?  It could be – anyone can show leadership.  But perhaps you’re sceptical or looking for a reason why it can’t be you?  It sounds like a lot of hard work and there’s no guarantee of success.

Marshall and her colleagues on the MSc course have evidently created a safe space for people to reflect about their doubts and uncertainties as well as their hopes and insights.  Chapters including this kind of personal testimony from people like Gater, Bent and Karp are intriguing, dramatic and engaging.

Karp’s story about food procurement shows difference between action learning approach and leader as hero – she’s as open about the set-backs as the successes.

I instantly recognised Bent’s description of holding professional optimism with personal pessimism, and many people I know have had that same conversation: wondering where their bolt-hole will be, to escape the impacts of runaway climate change.

Gater’s story in a brilliantly honest account of his work within a mainstream financial institution, moving a certain distance and then coming up against a seemingly insurmountable systemic challenge.  In a model of authentic story-telling, he describes tensions I have heard so many organisational change agents express.  He talks about visiting his colleagues ‘in their world’ and inviting them to visit him in his.  At the end of his story, the two worlds remain unreconciled,

“but it was okay – I had done what I could do as well as I believe I could have done it, and that had to be enough.”

Concluding

Both books start from the premise that we can’t wait for others to show leadership – we need to show leadership from where we are.

But we know that’s hard: Downey reminds us that

“…those who protect the status quo get rewarded for the inaction that slows down change, while disturbers-of-the-peace who send warning signals are disparaged, demoted or dismissed.”

But for her that’s not an excuse to hang back:

“we are not too small, and there is no small act. Either way we shape what happens.”

Transparency alert: Penny Walker is an Associate of Forum for Future, of which Sara Parkin is a Founder Director.  Penny has also been a visiting speaker on the MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice run by Judi Marshall, Gill Coleman and Peter Reason, as well as being a tutor on what might be seen as a competitor course, the Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business run by the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership in conjunction with Forum for the Future.

A shorter version of this review was first published in Defra’s SDScene, here.

“Engaging Emergence” – first impressions

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Peggy Holman’s new book, Engaging Emergence. Many readers will know Peggy as one of the authors of The Change Handbook, along with Tom Devane and Steven Cady.

I read it in bursts, and every chapter has something comforting and challenging in it. Peggy asks

“What if tensions inspired curiosity? What if we knew how to express our anger, fear, or grief so that it contributed to something better?”

There’s so much anger, fear and grief in conversations about ecosystem collapse.  I’d love it if that negative emotion could be composted into the fertile soil where new things grow.  There are positive reframings of disturbance and disruption.

I relished the permission she gives to let go of the things which bore or scare us, but which we do out of a misplaced sense of duty, and to embrace the aspects of the system which we are really interested in:

“Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service.”

I am developing some training on collaboration at the moment, and this exhortation to hold what’s important to you, whilst also deeply hearing what’s important to other people will become a theme, I’m sure.

Collaborative writing

An interesting footnote on why I was sent a copy: Peggy wrote the book as a blog, and invited anyone who wanted to post comments.  Because I interacted with this, I was offered a copy.  Fascinating peer review process and marketing wheeze rolled up together.  The blog (now inactive) is here and the list of all those who helped out is here.

http://strategicengagement.webs.com/

Multi-stakeholder collaboration – some headline sources

This blog entry is written for a very specific reason: I’ve just advised a group of people to look at my blog for initial sources on multi-stakeholder collaboration… but reviewing the blog I realise that it’ll be quite hard to find the things I mean, and some of them I haven’t even written about yet!

So, especially for them – and for you, dear other readers – here’s a quick brain dump of key sources and ideas which I think form a good set of starting points, mostly from my own experience.  Which means that if you have other great resources to tell people about, please do post them in the comments box.

Examples

There are some really interesting examples from the UK of the Environment Agency spending quite a lot of time and resources thoughtfully engaging in conversations with communities and other stakeholders when considering flood defences and coastal erosion risk.  For example, Shaldon and Medmerry [transparency alert - I worked on the Medmerry project] where engagement with stakeholders was carefully planned so that people could influence the decisions which the project team was making as the plans developed. Both schemes are ongoing.  See for example this report from the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission which includes Shaldon as an example, and this short case study from the Environment Agency on Shaldon.  A search using ‘environment agency’, shaldon, stakeholder and ‘liaison group’ will bring up other interesting views on the engagement approach and its success.There’s a bit more about the EA’s ground-breaking work in this area in this article on DAD/EDD.

Another place-specific collaborative approach is described in this article “Human Systems Intervention And The Natural Step” by Jenny Sardone & Magdalena Szpala, first published in AMED’s Organisations and People journal. I believe that it’s not available electronically, but I’m trying to chase down an e-version so I can link to it.

Much better known are the FSC and the MSC – now well-established multi-stakeholder organisations which tried to ‘get the whole system in the room’ to work out credible consensus-based criteria for what might be considered sustainable management of forest and marine resources.  They have had varying degrees of success over the years in getting buy-in from all the different interests (environmental, social, economic). I wrote about the MSC a few years ago, an article called plenty more fish in the sea.   Current examples include WWF-UK’s Tasting the Future, Forum for the Future’s work on tourism, and CPSL’s work on both climate and insurance. Some of these have crystalised into organisations, others are more fluid than that: fellow travellers collaborating with intention.

Theories, techniques and patterns

Fascinating to ponder on what the circumstances are which bring about authentic whole-system engagement, and what you have to do to get the right people in the room in the first place, and then to keep up the momentum. The best resource I know of at the moment on this is Peggy Holman’s Engaging Emergence.  But I’m sure there are lots of others: please help me collect them by posting your favourites in the comments box.

Favourite techniques which can help include World Cafe, Open Space Technology and Future Search. I’ve blogged about the first big Tasting the Future meeting here, which combined a number of techniques.

SDC resources on collaboration, dialogue, engagement

Since its demise, it’s really hard to find the engagement resources on the SDC’s website. So here are some direct links to some of them:

  • SDC’s response to National Framework for Greater Citizen Engagement (2008)
  • Final report on the SDC’s Supplier Obligation stakeholder and public engagement process “Household Energy from 2011″, with a description of process and findings.  There are links to other documents about this process here. [Transparency alert - I worked on the Supplier Obligation project.]
  • An independent evaluation report about the SDC’s Engagement in Tidal Power process, which brought together stakeholders and the public to think about criteria and issues in harnessing power from the tides.
  • The groundbreaking and really rather wonderful (for process geeks) guidance on designing engagement, published by the SDC but drawing on pioneering work done by InterAct Networks (Lindsey Colbourne, Lynn Wetenhall, Jeff Bishop, Richard Harris and others) and developed through practitioners at the Environment Agency among others. This work continues, for example through work Sciencewise-ERC has done with DECC.
  • Some specific gems from this guidance include ‘engagement and the policy making cycle‘ and a ‘typology of engagement’ and some definitions of different kinds of engagement. [More transparency - I work regularly with Sciencewise-ERC and as of 2011 am a Director of InterAct Networks]

Add your wisdom

This has been a very rapid post, and most of the examples and ideas are those which I’m personally familiar with. There must be lots of others, including some great compilation resources. Please use the comments space to link to your favourites and to critique what I’ve posted here.

http://www.msc.org/

One for the Dads

I’m not a great one for ‘top’ lists.  (‘To do’ lists are an entirely different matter.)

Perhap it’s a girl/boy thing: my life partner loves nothing better than to update his bird list,  flick through the cricket statistician’s bible Wisden, or relive his youth by combing down indexes of obscure Clash gigs.

As for me, when my kids ask me what my top three favourite songs are, I’m really stumped.  I don’t think I’d even be able to narrow it down to the eight specified by Desert Island Discs.

So I wasn’t that interested when the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership and Greenleaf published The Top 50 Sustainability Books.   In fact, it wasn’t until I actually had a copy to take home from a workshop that I realised its great value.

Because of course it’s so much more than a list.  Each book in the top fifty is summarised, and its ideas put into a wider context. The author(s) are profiled, there are some choice extracts and reflections from the authors about the impact of the book.

Well-known classics like Silent Spring and Small is Beautiful sit next to more recent and more obscure : Heat, and The Chaos Point.

Wayne Visser and Oliver van Heel have done a great job, creating a pass notes summary and bluffers guide to some absolute classics.  The book helps the busy reader understand key ideas in the sustainability field, reminds them about what they’ve already read – sometimes years ago – and introduces them to some new thought leaders.

So I’m happy to discover that my initial reaction was wrong.

Off to begin my list of books I should have paid attention to first time around…

Update: May 2011

Wayne has been blogging about an updated list, noticing trends towards more practical titles and an increase from a low base of women authors. See here.

Penny’s blog

Portrait of Penny

Thoughts, updates, links, and essays on creating change for sustainable development.