How can leadership teams find innovative solutions to sustainability challenges?

A sneak peek into some of the ideas behind Gaia Grant’s planned PhD thesis with Sydney University School of Business

by Andrew and Gaia Grant

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”
Albert Einstein

What would you do if you realised that furniture you were buying had come from a sweat shop in an impoverished country where child labour was used? Would it matter if the customer didn’t know about it, and if it was the most cost effective way to buy furniture? This is the sort of dilemma that can really test an organisation’s values.

We recently worked with the GM of a hotel who was proud to tell us about his company’s wonderful mission statement. To us there was nothing outstanding about it, as it included words we’d seen in mission statements before: integrity, honesty, passion, and so on. However the GM wanted to ensure that this was not merely an outward facing PR exercise, but that the values would become integral to the way the whole organisation operated.

Think about how it can be easy in hotels to take actions that can be more about how the company’s image is portrayed than whether it is a values driven responsibility. Think about, for example, when hotels ask the ask guests to agree to not having their sheets washed every day due to the impact on the environment. This action can also save the hotel money, so it is not necessarily completely values driven. And what about when the needs for both profit and integrity collide?

After some investigations, the hotelier we were working with realised that the furniture he had been sourcing for the hotel was relatively inexpensive because it came from a sweat shop that used child labour. He knew that even though the guests wouldn’t necessarily know where the furniture was coming from, if he was really going to live up to the values of the mission he was going to need to change suppliers and check more carefully going forward. He demonstrated how important it is to act from a values base to maintain integrity.

In another case, with another hotel GM we had worked with from a property in a developing country, the GM discovered that the sewage that was being shipped out in trucks never made it all the way to the official sewerage depot. To save time and hassle, the truck driver was merely dumping his load at a beach down the road. Out of sight out of mind. When he found out, the GM arranged for a senior staff member to travel with the truck each time to ensure it went to where it was supposed to go. The guest wouldn’t know the difference, but the GM knew it was the right thing to do for long term sustainability.

When the CEO from an insurance company wanted to include the term “compassionate“ as a key value in his company’s mission statement, we admired the intent but were unsure about the fit. We had been discussing the core values of the company in a visioning workshop session with the executive team, and we were curious to know how an insurance company could be considered to be compassionate. The team immediately replied that after riots in Bangkok the company had chosen to pay victims immediately rather than waiting for the outcomes of a court case. Many of the victims were small business owners of retail outlets who relied on the regular income to survive, so they needed the immediate payment. Thus they had demonstrated that compassion was an important factor in decision making.

For many companies these values can be difficult to align with the need to provide economic value to stakeholders. This creates a paradox that inevitably leads to tension.

These days companies need to make sense of their values and use them for more than just superficial marketing purposes. Enron had proudly boasted about honesty in their values before being exposed In one of the greatest corporate scandals in history. In comparison, companies like Patagonia have carved a niche in the market because they have stuck to authentic core beliefs and built up a real respect and loyalty from all stakeholders.

Where does your company stand? Have you identified the organisation’s core values, and are these being authentically and consistently applied?

PhD Thesis Problem Statement (Gaia Grant):
“How can leadership teams generate innovative approaches for dealing with organisational sustainability paradoxes? A collective sensemaking perspective?”

About the PhD

Rapid change and complex environments can lead to ambiguities. These ambiguities can then create significant tensions in organisations. The push towards the need for corporate responsibility and sustainability (e.g. through CSR programs) has resulted in specific tensions around developing social and environmental goals while simultaneously needing to make profit. These tensions can impact stakeholders at all levels. There is a clear need for organisations to build capabilities to enable people at all levels, inside and out, to deal with tensions such as these. Innovative new strategies and approaches are required that will enable more flexibility and adaptability to deal with the ambiguities.

This study will utilise sensemaking as a theoretical lens for understanding and interpreting the impact of sustainability paradoxes on leadership teams, and for identifying innovative new approaches to manage these paradoxes effectively. As the group is an important working unit of the organisation, the study will focus on collective sensemaking in the team context, which appears to be a gap in studies to date. The research methodology will be based on action research principles, which will involve active participation by the researcher in the sensemaking process and will therefore complement the general theoretical approach.

Read Part 2 (The interview) here >

Andrew Grant and Gaia Grant are the directors of Tirian, and authors of the breakthrough book ‘Who Killed Creativity?… And How Can We Get it Back?: Seven essential strategies for making yourself, your team and your organisation more innovative’. Andrew and Gaia have been engaged by market innovation leaders to help create a culture of innovation including: Google – working at their HQ in the US to introduce future solutions thinking; Nestle – facilitating a workshop on sustainable solutions for emerging markets at HQ in Switzerland; Large finance institutions – assisting them with dealing with changes to the regulations; Four Seasons Hotels – preparing the exec team and all GMs to embrace the potential future of the hospitality industry; Disney (HK) – creating compelling ideas to use for marketing. Gaia has a BA Dip Ed, BD (hons), Grad Dip Change Leadership, and MSc (in creative thinking). She is now completing an MPhil, leading into a PhD at Sydney University, where she is also a guest lecturer.

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