There is no doubt that these are exciting times for sustainability, for organisations as well as for individuals. While it is a complex issue that presents multiple challenges, anyone and everyone can be a leader for sustainability – whether as someone involved in the business of sustainability, concerned consumers or as internal activists within organisations. However, taking the lead is not always straightforward. We do not always know what to do, and therefore need to engage in radical thinking beyond the usual leadership framework.
Using action research
One way to do this is to combine the principles and practices of action research and systemic thinking. Action research refers to a rich array of approaches which join together thinking and action, typically by experimenting as things unfold, engaging in cycles of action and reflection, seeking collaboration and being openly concerned about values. There is no particular formula, rather we follow a route decided by context and a wide range of possibilities which takes shape over time.
This approach can involve a person adopting an inquiring approach to their assumptions and actions (first person); people joining together to explore issues of mutual interest (second person); or trying to prompt inquiry in a wider community such as an organisation, town or professional network (third person). It can often be all three types of action at once.
For example, a sustainability manager might set up a working group to investigate their organisation's carbon emissions and steps towards change (a second person inquiry) and then move into a phase of company-wide engagement, inviting all employees to become more aware and to contribute to reducing carbon impacts (a third person inquiry). All the time they could be engaged in their own (first person) inquiry about how they are going about this, paying attention to multiple stakeholders and signals to fine tune their actions as the situation develops.
How to include systemic thinking
And this is where the action research approach combines well with systemic thinking. The latter is a set of ideas for viewing life as a complex picture with multi-dimensional patterns in relationships involving feedback loops (some balancing, some amplifying) and emergent properties.
Often patterns of behaviour are resilient and re-establish themselves, perhaps only in slightly amended forms, despite bigger targets for change. For example, many companies now produce annual corporate responsibility reports. These were advocated to achieve transparency and encourage more demanding targets for environmental and social performance. But they have often become ends in themselves, in which less challenging aims are selected and improved, but large swathes of an organisation's impacts are left out of the picture.
In this picture, proving the business case for sustainability is a conundrum where the primacy of economic values remains at the forefront. The system is fixated on growth-based market reasoning despite the impossibility of this within the planet's means. Efficiency measures taken to date have had limited impact and carbon emissions are still increasing. Systemic thinking is required to help us see how, despite good intentions, we might be contributing to a damaging business-as-usual view.
Another dimension of systemic thinking is that we cannot possibly know everything and so must always work with partial understanding. This fits well with the core practices of action research: living life as inquiry, as a set of disciplines for making life up as we go along, including sensing and adjusting the impacts we might be having.
Adopting moment-by-moment action research involves inquiry into whether to persist or desist. On a personal level this might mean using a different approach in a conversation to get a commitment to action or more broadly, thinking about whether working for a company provides a platform and credibility to take action on climate change or compromises one so the intended impact is no longer significant.
As we each seek to play our parts and dovetail our activities with others, action research means we take all we do as provisional, as contributing to our learning and guides next steps in experimenting. Systemic thinking stretches our attention out to respect complex interaction patterns which we inevitably see only partially.
It especially reminds us to keep asking 'how, despite my valiant intentions and efforts, am I helping to keep things the same?' We can then pause and look to more radical possibilities, conjured through the collaborative processes of action research.
Professor Judi Marshall is professor of leadership and learning at Lancaster University Management School
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