In my first post for 2016, I outlined the seven key principles of what I am calling Holistic Sustainability. The first being See the Big Picture.
One of the highlights from my year at the Harvard Kennedy School was studying leadership with Ronald Heiftetz. Yes, this was over 20 year ago! But his book Leadership Without Easy Answers still sits on my bookshelf. Imagine my pleasant surprise at the last sustainability conference I attended when several presenters mentioned Heiftetz’s concept of adaptive leadership. The class itself is highly experiential, impossible to capture in a 500-word blog post, but two concepts still stand out to me that I think all sustainability projects would benefit from incorporating: adaptive challenge and get on the balcony.
Technical challenges bound in the world of sustainability–for example, retrofitting a plant with energy efficient lighting. It is applying current knowledge, has a clear ROI and a facilities manager (an authority) can easily implement this task. In comparison, an adaptive challenge requires employees and stakeholders (people with the problem) to learn new ways of working together. Climate change is an example of an adaptive challenge–it will require changes in behavior and institutional structure, not just a technological fix. The biggest failure of leadership is to treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.
As explained in Leadership on the Line,”…you know you are dealing with something more than a technical issue when people’s hearts and minds need to change, not just their preferences or routine behaviors.” It continues, “If you throw all the technical fixes you can imagine at the problem and the problem persists, it’s a pretty clear signal that an underlying adaptive challenge still needs to be addressed. Other signs of an adaptive challenge include the need to shift values and behaviors, the need for change across organizational boundaries, conflict and crisis.
Get on the Balcony
To solve an adaptive challenge, the first step is to “get off the dance floor and gain perspective from the balcony,” what I refer to as See the Big Picture. It is so easy and compelling to get caught up in the action. “Seeing the whole picture requires standing back and watching even as you take part in the action being observed.” A key element to holistic sustainability incorporates this concept and encourages organizations to step back and assess the system they are part of, yet at the same time not get stuck in simply creating a strategy that sits on the shelf.
The sweet spot, according to Heifetz is to go back and forth between the dance floor and the balcony. After you take the time to step back and see the big picture, you take action. Leadership on the Line stresses that “You take action, step back and assess the results of the action, reassess the plan, then go to the dance floor and make the next move.”
Leadership on the Line (page 55) suggests four tasks to help you see the bigger picture:
- Distinguish technical from adaptive challenges.
- Find out where people are at–engage in authentic conversations. Listen.
- Listen to the song beneath the words. For example, look at body language, eye contact, emotion and
energy. What is not being said?
- Read the behavior of authority figures for clues–the words and behaviors of authority figures provide clues.
Other questions to explore include:
- Who are the key players?
- Who is missing from the table/discussion?
- Who are potential allies/partners?
- What is your organization’s tolerance for discomfort?
- What action/intervention can you take to move things forward?
- What was the impact/reaction to your intervention?
Let’s Get Personal
The final chapter in Staying Alive, The Personal Challenge, ends with a discussion on listening and using oneself as data, to learn to distinguish how our own reactions might get in the way of how we listen and observe a system. For example, your reaction might represent the distress of the larger system or mirror the problem dynamics in the community. This step in my opinion is a lifetime practice of “learning about our own filters and biases” and factoring them into our interpretations.”
I still remember the day in front of 200 people Hiefetz challenged me after I shared something in class. As I recall, he said to me, “Well, Debby will always be Debby and take things too personally.” Ahhh, and 20 years later I still have to practice to see reactions for what they represent for the system and not take them personally.