Getting beyond incremental change

Getting beyond incremental change

I go to a lot of conferences. And a consistent theme I’ve seen this year is incremental change:

  • At sustainability conferences, companies are talking about what they’re doing to be a little bit better to the environment … how they’ve shaved a little more content out of their packaging, how they’ve begun to bake sustainability into their product development process, how they’ve tweaked their manufacturing process or social policies.
  • At energy conferences, utilities are talking about how they’re gaining a little ground with their energy efficiency programs, or how they’re dipping their toe into the renewables or home energy management game.

Meanwhile, consultants are screaming at these conferences and in their blogs (including this one):

  • “Utilities! The solar industry, ESCOs and home energy management providers are going to eat your lunch … change now or you risk becoming a mere commodity and/or backup supplier!”
  • “Fortune 500! Climate change, population growth and a myriad of other forces are going to create massive disruption to your business models … you need to radically change or you won’t survive!”

So … you could draw the conclusion that companies aren’t listening to the consultants. Or that incremental change isn’t so bad (running the ball a few yards at a time can win football games, after all). Or that companies have tackled the easy, low-hanging fruit – but the remaining tasks are more difficult and expensive.

Or you could determine that there’s simply a lot of fear and resistance to change. Or that companies don’t actually know how to create the radical change necessary to create flourishing enterprises of the future.

I spent some time on the phone last week with Chris Laszlo, who actually coined the term “flourishing” (and co-wrote a book of the same name) as a better way to describe what all companies should be aiming for. He’s right. Why would we want our companies to be “sustainable” when we could have them flourish instead?

Chris’ approach is founded on the maxim that you can’t have flourishing organizations without attending to the well-being of the people inside the organizations. I think he’s right. And his point addresses one of the possibilities above – that fear and resistance might be getting in the way of the radical, creative thinking and bold execution needed to move companies and the environment to long-term health. If we could tend to the fear and resistance, perhaps we’d get somewhere.

(Patrick Lencioni also writes about this in The Advantage. I don’t know if he coined the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” but that’s the basic premise of this book, and I agree with it. If you can get past fear and resistance – and get the culture of organizations right – you can begin to create meaningful change.)

Then there’s the point about whether or not companies actually know how to create the change necessary to create a flourishing enterprise. There’s an upcoming conference called the Global Forum that will address that piece and the personal well-being piece. (Chris is instrumental to the creation of the conference.) I have not attended before, but I’m intrigued by the model the conference will follow to tackle big global challenges over a 2.5-day period. It will use the four cycles of the Appreciative Inquiry model (paraphrased in my words here):

  • Building on what’s already good in the existing system vs. bemoaning what’s wrong
  • Creating a clear vision of the desired future state
  • Crafting prototype solutions/business models through collaborative dialogue
  • Committing to action

If you’re interested in learning a framework for tackling big problems – and tending to the people who will need to overcome their own “stuff” to execute the solutions – it looks to be worth checking out:

Let’s compare notes in late October.


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Posted on

August 20, 2014

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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