10 years in Forum: 5 reflections on creating change

Yesterday, 17 March 2013, was my tenth anniversary of starting at Forum for the Future. Here are 5 reflections on creating change.

1. if you wait long-enough, everything comes back into fashion
My first role in  2003 was ‘sustainability accountant’. I was, probably, the only person in the world with that particular job title. As I wrote in an earlier post, activity in  sustainability accounting all rather ground to a halt in the late 2000s but has had a surprising renaissance in the last year or so.

My anecdotal sense is that people couldn’t figure out how to use the information well, and didn’t demand it. But, as sustainability becomes more important with bigger financial implications, decision-makers are wanting numbers – hence the rebirth.

2. if you’re irreversibly committed, you have more incentive to do it well
In my 10 years Forum has changed its fundamental strategy – how it is trying to creating change – at least 3 times. In 2003 Forum had 8 or so semi-autonomous programmes, each trying to make a difference in business, or local authorities, or universities, or wherever. In 2007-ish came a shift to developing a world-class futures capability, which in turn was the primary way of accelerating businesses and public sector bodies. Then in 2010 we changed again, away from an emphasis on pushing leading organisations, to trying to shape the systems they are in.

Each time we were trying to deliver better on Forum’s purpose – accelerating progress to a sustainable society through a ‘can-do’, partnership approach. (Others would write this differently.) What the world needed changed and so did we.

The key is that Forum is a charity. So, yes, the primary purpose of any activity has to be the wider change. Just as importantly, the responsibility and privilege of being a charity is to do things which others can’t or won’t do yet. Therefore, Forum is committed to being on the leading-edge in a fast-maturing field. That irreversible commitment forces us to constantly question whether we have the best approach, and to change it when needed.

3. a fast-maturing field is both difficult and exciting
Sustainability is a young field – forty-one years, if you take Stockholm ’72 as your starting point. Compared to accounting, my first qualification, that’s young. For ENDS, I wrote how sustainable business is in its early teenage years.

What makes this  difficult? Lots of things are still unformed, from the big stuff like key terms (question from someone today “so, what is your definition of sustainability?”) to more mundane items like career paths. Business people have expectations formed in their much more mature fields and try to impose them on this immature one  (no, you can’t measure sustainability performance as well as financial performance, yet). There is a constant struggle to stay up to date, to choose which sub-dividing area to keep an eye on, to establish legitimacy.

The exciting thing, of course, is that so little is fully formed. Which means you can be there at the birth and, even, influence it.

For instance, in 2005 I was the Forum representative on the deliberations which became the third version of the Global Reporting Initiative (or “G3”). I sat on two committees, the economics indicators and the disclosure working group. In the economics teleconferences it became clear that no one liked the previous indicators, but no one had any ideas on what to do about it. So, I wrote them, one Sunday afternoon (see p25-6 of this pdf). I imagine tens of thousands of companies having to disclose against these and am pleased.

Also, within Forum I coined a pair of questions which contrasted CSR with sustainability:

our partners used to ask Forum “What should our CSR function strategy be?” but they are now asking “What should our business strategy be, in the light of sustainability?”

I wasn’t the only person to have this insight at that moment in time, either in Forum or beyond. Nevertheless, this formula helped crystallise a direction in Forum – we wanted to use our growing futures methods to influence the fundamental business strategy of the company, not just write a better CSR strategy. Forum did this with numerous leading companies, and their prominent success stories have in turn influenced tens if not hundreds of companies. Plus, I have been approached by people, who say they’ve used this formula and thanking me for it. Which is nice.

4. creating change is often about creating options that are in a good-enough direction
In many ways, temperamentally I would prefer the opposite to be true, that creating change was about creating a great action plan and then doing one thing after another, as written down. after all, writing a plan is in your control. But it turns out that we have imperfect information, circumstances evolve and so on. No plan survives contact with reality (to misquote Helmuth von Moltke the Elder).

Instead, a better stratagem is to create options that take you forward in a good-enough direction. The beauty of this insight is that it works at many levels.

So, when facilitating a workshop in September last year I was trying to help the group make sense of some pretty contradictory inputs from different attendees. I offered them different options on how the group could work together and on what the possible meanings were.

Earlier this month I was co-designing a strategy process for a global company, by asking what is that needs to happen in this step to open up what needs to happen in the next step, all the way to the desired goals.

Early last year O2 launched their Blueprint. The 3 ambitious Goals irreversibly commit (see 2. above) to a direction in a way that requires O2 to explore different options on how to deliver.

In many ways, this insight is my expression of one of Donella Meadows 12 levers for change. The options I offer are different ways to add, change, evolve, or self-organize a system’s structure.

Put like that it can sound quite clinical. The Bill Torbert version is more human: designing situations where others can be the source of their own causation.

5. relationships create better future options than just insights
Finally (for now) is the reflection that having many, diverse, quality relationship is a great way to have future options, and definitely a better approach than just having insights. 

Active relationships are sources of information and insights (and revenue – even charities need to pay the bills). Without relationships it is far, far harder to mobilise resources, whether inside an organisation or from many organisations. If you have many quality relationships then you have more options on how to achieve your goals.

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One thought on “10 years in Forum: 5 reflections on creating change

  1. Pingback: World in 2050: Walking a tightrope over a ravine | business and sustainability - a work-in-progress

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