Positive Impact Blog

Thought provoking insights for change makers

Change: Learning to Enjoy the Mess

Questions about the Unknowns, too many question marks

Few of us are caught by surprise these days when change occurs in our organizations.  However, the rapidly escalating pace of change can sometimes leave us breathless.  What’s worse, many organizations are now engaging in large-scale, transformational change, heading in a defined direction but not necessarily knowing where they will end up.  They adjust their change path as the journey evolves.  Thus people inside of the organization face great uncertainty as the process unfolds.

In her May blog, Katrin Muff described the Business School of Lausanne’s transformational journey. She portrayed the change process as both personal and organizational. According to Katrin, some of the challenges along the way have been inconvenient and discomforting.  She concluded, however, that the results of the changes are nevertheless continuing to be very rewarding.

I believe the school deserves great credit for pushing through the inconvenience and discomfort, and persevering in spite of it. Many organizations might not be courageous enough to persist in the face of so much uneasiness; and if so, they would miss out on benefits that could otherwise have been theirs. To excel at transformational change, organizations and the people who comprise them must accept change-related discomfort and adjust to it as a natural expectation.

While large-scale change is likely to be somewhat discomfiting, each of us can diminish the stress it brings by developing greater tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.

Why Change is Difficult

Organizations and human beings have a natural tendency to preserve stability.  Stable and long-standing processes, procedures and cultures at their best can enable our organizations to function smoothly and consistently.  When our environment is stable, ordinary routines ease our stress levels.  Life is more predictable when we can experience a sense of control over our outcomes.

Large-scale change, whether we welcome it or dread it, is disruptive.  Since change is often fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty, our routines may no longer serve us well.  As a result, we may begin to lose our sense of equilibrium.  When we feel off-balance, we are likely to experience anxiety – some of us more than others.  While anxiety is truly part of life, left unattended, anxiety can threaten our functionality and our sense of well-being.   While we may not be able to eliminate it completely, we can learn to manage it.  As we develop greater tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, we are less likely to experience high levels of stress.  And when we do, we are more likely to handle the tension more positively.

Tolerance for Ambiguity:  The Key to Handling Change

While actions such as exercising, meditating and deep breathing are effective antidotes for the symptoms of stress and anxiety, developing a higher tolerance for ambiguity gets to the root cause of these tensions.  Research studies show that people with high tolerance for ambiguity tend to experience less stress, think more clearly, and have a greater sense of well-being than those who are less tolerant.

Characteristics of Those with High Tolerance for Ambiguity

People who have a high tolerance for ambiguity accept the premise that life is often uncertain.  They acknowledge that change is complicated and unsettling. They reject the notion that it is either negative or positive.  Rather, they tend to believe that every change incorporates some of both.  To the best of their ability, they view change as more challenging than threatening.

In addition to using a different frame for viewing change, those with high tolerance for ambiguity are also more likely to possess the following characteristics:

  • They focus on the more probable impacts and outcomes of the change rather than on any and all possibilities.
  • They don’t dwell on “worst case” scenarios and possible catastrophic outcomes that are highly unlikely.
  • They differentiate what they can control from what they cannot.
  • They base their actions on the controllable factors and avoid worrying about the others.
  • They are willing to take reasonable actions with incomplete information. Therefore, they rarely feel paralyzed in the face of change.

By acting on what they can control, they raise their sense of personal power over their fates.  This feeling tends to lead to a higher level of well-being.  In truth, these characteristics are more natural to some than to others.  Nevertheless, all of us can develop them to some degree.  When we do learn to tolerate ambiguity better, we are more likely to handle change well and are less likely to experience constant anxiety and stress.

Summary and Conclusions

Change is upsetting because it disrupts our sense of stability.  Unfortunately, many of us still experience change as threatening.  We can, however, reframe our thoughts to view change as challenging rather than something to fear.  By reframing our views of change, hopefully we can also decrease our negative emotional reactions to it.

When we feel threatened we may resist changing, dig in and hold onto the familiar.  Often such reactions only increase the dysfunction and anxiety.  However, if we accept ambiguity as a fact of life and consciously raise our threshold for it, we are less likely to be anxious and more likely to make thoughtful decisions.  While none of us controls our fate completely, by taking action on those things that we can control we develop a greater sense of self-efficacy which, in turn leads to a greater sense of well-being.

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

Redefining boundaries within organizations

If we want companies to engage in courageous collaboration beyond their traditional organizational boundaries and engage in new ways with other players and stakeholders, we need people capable of engaging themselves personally in new ways, and also engaging with others. This article looks at what it takes to achieve just that. 

Following Kathy Miller’s April blog on Courageous Collaboration which focused primarily on collaboration among and beyond organizations, I would like to complement her perspective with a reflection on courageous collaboration within organizations. Both – I believe – are essential in a journey where organizations and their people can contribute to a better world.

Reviewing the action research blogs about the organizational and personal journey we have all undergone at Business School Lausanne, I have discovered a number of insights that are worth sharing:

Enabling an equal footing among all people

Ensuring the same rights and conditions among all employees, irrespective of their work-related hierarchy, is easier said than done. Even nine months after having transferred our formal power into a constitution that clearly empowers all employees to express their concerns in a safe way, we are still not entirely there. We are still fighting a shadow hierarchy, even if these are mostly in the heads and are projections of the “old system”. What we have accomplished is that such concerns are now expressed openly and with ease. A good indication that we may be at the beginning of an equal footing, that is of essence for true collaboration. Once ensured, an equal footing allows that ideas, concerns and insights of all kinds can be shared with equal priority, a basis for an innovative environment. Even though we might just be at the very beginning, we are already experiencing a significant increase in innovation.

Establishing deep listening

A clear procedure enforced through a clear process has proven incredibly powerful to help us become aware of our deeply engrained thought patterns when listening to each other. Holacracy has procedures that prevent an automatic pattern of interrupting others (and thus preventing real listening). After nine months of living by these rules, I have noticed a change in my listening patterns. Rather than observing instant thoughts popping up whenever somebody suggests something, I notice now a free space in my head that allows a much deeper and open listening, focused on understanding rather than immediately judging, evaluating, deconstructing, denying or approving. We all had our challenges with the strict Holacracy structure and how this brought up patterns in us. At BSL, we offered every employee a CHF 1000 grant for their individually defined personal development programme, recognizing that transforming an organization does impact everybody and that we wanted to not only own our organizational responsibility for this but enable each individual to deal with what comes up and to look at flaws, for those with an appetite for it. Many have jumped at the opportunity and we look forward to seeing what happens if a large majority of the team engages with personal development alongside the organization. The point here is: resources, including financial, must be made available to enable such a profound transformation! We are now able to talk very differently and this space has resulted in more opinions being shared and considered by a broader team that feels more engaged. This is a basic condition for collaboration.

A transparent process for problems

Any organization depends on real processes that ensure that anybody can safely bring up problems and issues without suffering any consequences. Holacracy provided us with such a safe space. It took the various members of our organization about six months until everybody started to be at ease in bringing up controversial and possibly disruptive or questionable ideas that will challenge conventions and ways things have worked. Now that we have this space, which is guaranteed through a bullet-proof process, innovation is emerging in new, unconventional, honest and not always very convenient ways. We have developed our culture from a more homogeneous, stable place to a place where change is a part of the everyday, and transformation happens continuously in small doses. From a developmental perspective, this is very interesting; the only alternative might be to hire the right people from the start, so
mething that is not feasible with a going concern and ignores the possibility of developing those with an appetite to discover and embrace more of their potential along with the organization. Continuous change is not everybody’s business, we have discovered this too and creating a space where this can be expressed and dealt with that is the kind of culture that truly does enable the more underlying transformation of deep change, so very different from a top-down change process. We have never experienced such a degree of honest and authenticity in working with and among ourselves and while some things have been difficult to listen to, we now work on a new basis of trust that is built on a common understanding of reality and where we stand as compared to where we might like to be. Such a basis of understanding removes all artificiality and falseness and enables true collaboration.

Slowing down to speed up

We used to mastermind change by considering all intended and unintended consequences of a decision, then orchestrating change top down. This was one of my specialties and I am still learning to resist my temptation to mastermind change. We are starting to see the benefits of simply processing one “tension” (problem, idea, issue, etc.) at a time and implementing related changes in the spirit of “if safe enough to try, let’s go ahead”. And then letting the next tension, which might be unrelated and occurring elsewhere in the organization be processed. The emergent ongoing process of adaptation and change, one step at a time, slightly resembles a dancing spider. While it sometimes still feels like we could move faster when masterminding, we are just starting to experience the benefits of advancing at a speed that is felt by those who are actually affected. It not only results in the most appropriate solution but is also much more relaxed from a managerial perspective. For the first time, working at BSL feels like working in a team of peers with everybody engaged in advancing the organization towards its mission.

Separating the role from the soul

We always say that it is important to separate work from personal relationships, yet we have learned at BSL that most people have no idea what this actually means. Since last September, we have first focused on optimizing our work relationships, entirely neglecting our personal relationships and missing them at the same time. After a dip in team spirit and after a long dark period, the benefits started to emerge. Learning how openly and directly we can deal with work issues, without taking offence, opened up a new type of personal space in which we are now able to be with each other just as human beings. This transformation is entirely surprising and unexpected. It was the most difficult thing in our Holacracy implementation, and we had no idea what expected us at the end of the tunnel. The ability to separate work roles from our individual souls, has professionalized our work and increased our productivity and efficiency while at the same time, we are able to have very difficult conversations without taking them personal. At the same time, we have deepened our individual relationships in entirely new ways. This separation allows an entirely new flexibility and honesty in matching individual strengths with accountabilities and roles. Giving up the idea of jobs and identifying roles and accountabilities has provided the basis for this flexibility.

Seeing the hero in others

The strength-based approach that now defines the way we look at each other, has brought out a special talent in one of our team members, Carlo. He dreams of a team of heroes that work together to advance the mission of our organization and with this view, he has developed a habit of addressing particular skills or competencies in hero terms. He says, “Hey, that is amazing what you did here, which hero suit do you want? How about Spiderman? Or Superman?” By now, his view has become contagious and we are paying a lot more compliments to each other when one does something that is worth appreciating. This has generated a lightness and a humor that has transformed our hard work into more of a dance than a race it used to be. This new sense of appreciation may well be a result of having so rigorously separated role from soul. It has for sure augmented our spirit of collaboration.

Sharing the journey of learning

An important impulse for our newly found basis of collaboration lies in the simple fact that our entire team started a process of learning a system that none of us knew: Holacracy. This put all of us at an entirely equal level and it ensured that nobody knew better, with everybody having a chance to shine, to help others, to ask for help, to praise and be praised, to role model in the many possible ways that make a difference in a team that consists of true collaborators that know both the strengths and weaknesses of each other and know how to ensure progress by focusing on strengths and celebrating big and small successes that were jointly achieved

These seven insights are a result of our organizational transformation that has provoked such fundamental and deep changes in the way we look at ourselves and at each other, how we work together and how we are able to truly collaborate. This transformation was by no means without pain, but the magic that is emerging now is far beyond the wildest dreams I had when we started this process. Introducing Holacracy, an organizational operating system that enables a power distribution and self-organization, has brought about a chance that has fundamentally transformed our ability to collaborate internally. An important element for an organization to also effectively cooperate beyond its boundaries with other organizations. As we have learned, reviewing internal boundaries that reconsider our individual, personal space in an entirely new way – separating soul from role – has become the source of innovation to create an inspiring basis of true collaboration.

Courageous collaborations: how one plus one can be greater than two

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability.

Organizations have always been complex.   And in today’s world the enormity of our challenges calls for rethinking how our establishments operate.   In her March blog, Katrin discussed how structure and culture can equip an organization to address current and future challenges.   She argued that many may need an overhaul.  Her primary focus was on changing how the organizations function internally.   I propose that we should also consider how we relate to other organizations outside of our traditional boundaries.  I believe that collaboration across boundaries gives us the best chance of coming up with innovative solutions to at least some of our multifaceted conundrums.

Of course, organizations have varied perspectives with regard to most of our most pressing societal issues.  However, within the right conditions, those differences can enhance rather than detract from problem-solving.   When distinct groups band together to confront common problems, one-plus-one can equal more than two!

Recently I moderated a panel of corporate sustainability professionals as part of Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability graduate program.  The panelists all agreed that companies must take a leadership role in addressing sustainability challenges.  However, they also emphasized the need for cooperation and collaboration among a variety of players including universities, government and NGOs, to name a few.  Mark Weick, Director of Sustainability and Enterprise Risk Management at the Dow Chemical Company, stated that it is time for organizations to engage in “courageous collaboration” built on mutual trust.

Elements of Courageous Collaboration

The term “courageous collaboration” was first used by the national nonprofit, Center for Ethical Leadership.   They outlined the qualities foster courageous collaborations such as establishing trusting relationships, taking risks that matter, and being open to collective creativity.  Our corporate panelists would surely agree with these qualities. In our discussion they spoke to what they believe really makes a positive difference in their own alliances.

1. Reframe our views of “the other” as the enemy.

To build trust and work collaboratively, organizations must give up the all too prevalent tendencies to view “other” groups as the enemy.  For example, our panel discussed the long-held view that governments and corporations are adversaries.  A frequent assumption is that governments set regulations, corporations seek to work around them, and NGOs attempt to expose them.   The degree of accuracy in this assumption is unknown.  However what we do know is that in order to collaborate, many types of organizations must cooperate.   The recent Paris Climate Conference marked the first official recognition that the government cannot solve sustainability-related challenges alone. To succeed in establishing boundary-crossing collectives, organizations must view the others as trusted colleagues and acknowledge that all have a valuable role to play. Only within a trusting environment can collaborative groups achieve what cannot be accomplished alone.

2. Avoid acting solely in self-interest.

If we enter into a collaborative partnership in order to assure that our self-interests are achieved, we are violating the most important quality of courageous collaborations: trust.  For example, many times competitors within the same industry come together to address issues that could affect all.   When the members approach these collectives as a way to safeguard their own interests, or to ensure that they prevail over their competitors, creative approaches to shared concerns are unlikely to emerge.

3. Establish the rules of engagement

All organizations need some certainty in order to move forward smartly, according to Elizabeth Heider, Chief Sustainability Officer of Skanska USA.  She suggested that the varying partners in a collective are likely to have their own disparate rules.  Therefore, the members of the groups, whether representing corporations, government, NGOs, universities or any other organizational type, should establish a common rulebook and sincerely commit to it.

4. Develop a common language.

When the members of a collaborative group come together from dissimilar organizations representing different sectors, industries and countries, misunderstandings are likely.  Only when members work to understand the perspectives of the others and develop a common language can these confusions be avoided.  Heider said that when groups are talking about sustainability-related issues, shared metrics can enable clearer communications.  Courageous collaborators can avoid often dooming misunderstandings by taking the time to develop a common language.

Organizational boundaries aren’t what they once were.  To solve our many difficult challenges, we must all be willing to join with others with perspectives and knowledge different from our own.  However, the mere existence of a group committed to working together on common challenges isn’t enough to guarantee creative solutions.  If we truly want to achieve successes that exemplify how one plus one can be greater than two, we will need to rethink some of the assumptions that enable our comfort.  Instead we need to embrace the qualities that enable  courageous collaboration.

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

Organizations of the Future – how to get there?

Organizations of the future can be recognized by a number of unique elements:

They attract and retain talent with future-relevant competencies

They are able to innovate as quickly as the outside world changes

They have distributed power structures based on smart self-organizing units

They build their purpose on solving burning societal needs and thus ensuring long-term economic viability

They embrace stakeholders into their decision-making

They have flexible and adaptive structures and processes

In short: they look very different from the typical large-sized organization of today.

As Kathy Miller pointed out in her February blog, organizations need to “adapt or die” and understanding stakeholder pressure as an opportunity for purposeful growth is an important pathway towards adapting and long-term success. As Kathy has suggested, the average lifespan of corporations has decreased from 60+ years to less than 15 years in the past 100 years (source: Richard Foster, Creative Destruction, 2001). This compares to a human lifespan that has increased by 30 years in the past 100 years. What I am proposing here is a short discussion about how organizational structures need to adjust – a painful, difficult and necessary topic.

Innovation is a big word and many believe that we can innovate around just about anything, including new organizational forms. Gary Hamel has made this claim in his latest Harvard Business Review Article (March 22nd, 2016), suggesting that organizations should prototype new organizational structures into various sub-units rather than adopt carefully designed and complex organizational structures that exist “ready-made”, such as Holacracy. I find this a dangerous invitation for a number of reasons.

First of all, I would say that companies should only innovate in the areas of their specific expertise, which typically do not involve organizational design but rather some specific product or service.

Second, changing an organizational structure can result in significant inefficiencies, fear, resistance and unintended consequences. It makes sense to propose as few such deep changes as possible to avoid paralysis.

Third, organizational structures deal with deeply embedded power structures that trigger all kinds of conscious and unconscious reactions when disrupted – a delicate thing as we know from personal development. It is amplified when applied to an organizational setting. Therefore, I would suggest the very opposite to what Gary Hamel is saying, namely: do not prototype and innovate around your organizational structure. Instead, get professional advice and figure out carefully where your organization stands and where it wants to go and then evaluate what options there are to ensure that the organizational structure supports that future direction. And then choose the option that is most appropriate to your organizational culture.

In Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux outlines different types of organizations using a developmental perspective. He introduces the idea of “teal” organizations which are the emerging newest form of organizations and are considered the most adaptive, flexible and future-ready. He then lists a number of examples of what these companies might look like and then investigates if there are any common themes in the way they are organized. He points out three things: a) such organizations use the wisdom of self-organization; b) they promote “wholeness”, meaning that employees don’t leave their values at the doorstep; and c) they have evolutionary purposes, meaning that the organization serves a larger purpose than the survival of its own unit. Now, clearly, not every company fits this profile or might even want to be operating in such a space. One can claim that such organizations are well positioned to do well in future, given that by their very nature they integrate the six critieria listed above.

At Business School Lausanne, where we aim at educating our business students for the future, we believe it is critical to not only introduce such new evolutionary models into our standard curriculum, but to actually walk the talk by testing such new forms of organization. As a result, we decided to embrace Holacracy as our new organizational operating system in the summer of 2015. Now, our organization is transparent and visible to anybody (see here real-time how we are organized and who does what) – and it has been interesting to see what has happened to us and our organization as a result. Those of us who feel like sharing contribute to our blog regularly, which has become our very own action research in organizational development.

Our experience at Business School Lausanne (BSL) is very different from what Gary Hamel has outlined in his article: the positive energy that is released and the resulting shared and collaborative innovation is so enriching and powerful. And this has been achieved in a relatively short period of time after the initial shock was felt and that goes with any important quantum leap change process. Holacracy does not seek to replace bureaucracy; it offers an alternative way of dealing with power in decision-making processes. In our own journey at Business School Lausanne, we briefly suffered from this misconception, with a number of employees treating Holacracy as a new ruler (top down) rather than as the enabling support structure that it can be (and is intended to be). And we are not yet through the process – but we are sticking with it for sure. This is both for our own personal and organizational learning and to fulfil our promise as a learning institution for our students. Holacracy has put all of us in a new, shared space, one where we had to learn a new language, individually and collectively and where each of us was challenged with our own shadows of how we had so far unconsciously dealt with power. Daring to face these shadows, and enabling one another to dare to take new decisions in the roles we have, has been such a rich experience and has brought such an acceleration of innovation that sometimes I wonder how it is possible to get so much done in one day. The last two weeks feel like six months of work (and done with a smile). There is so much energy locked in the system that can be unleashed if the process is accompanied well and coaching and facilitation is readily available if and when needed.

Now, this was our journey so far and yours will be different for sure, and so I am not recommending that you copy what we have done. Rather, I am curious about where your organization is on its journey towards its vision and whether or not your organization has the right structure in place to achieve your vision. If not, do let Kathy Miller and me know – we are glad to help you with a cultural and an organizational assessment and with recommendations on what options there are for your future journey.

Adapt or Die: Understanding Stakeholder Pressure as an Opportunity for Purposeful Growth

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability.

Have you ever thought about how many formerly great companies are no longer around? For example, whatever happened to previously iconic companies like Compaq, Standard Oil, and Polaroid? And who can overlook the gradual demise of Blackberry?  Of course it is difficult to say whether these failures could have been predicted much less prevented.

Yet as we look ahead at the demands and threats that signal our corporate futures, several obvious needs will include:

  • the need for proficiency in innovation,
  • the ability to attract and retain talent in a tight and changing labour pool and;
  • the capability to identify and mitigate risks such as those arising from climate change.

The full list is much longer, however I would suggest that it is most critical to explore two related foundational issues that I believe will determine how we handle all of the many other challenges.  These are: (1) defining our assumptions about company purpose, and (2) broadening our view of who counts.

  1. Our assumptions about the company’s purpose and role in the world.

An assumption is something that we accept as true without question or proof.  Although often implicit, assumptions underlie much of how we function both individually and collectively within our companies. These assumptions inform our company identity.  They determine the lens that we use when we make decisions. And assumptions, while sometimes hidden, impact how others view us, including our employees, our customers and society at large.

The most critical assumption upon which all others rest is why we are in business in the first place.  My argument is that companies who assume a responsibility and purpose beyond merely making a profit are more likely to succeed in the future than their counterparts. Our increasingly transparent and activist world leads to higher expectations concerning our companies’ ethics and in how we serve the world.

In their recent article The End of the Beginning, Harvard Business School faculty Bob Eccles and Georg Kell state “in an interdependent world, long-term financial success goes hand-in-hand with social responsibility, environmental stewardship, and sound ethics.” [i]

  1. Our view of who counts: Stakeholders

Those groups that hold expectations for our companies and that can affect and be affected by us are often referred to as stakeholders. Over the past few decades, companies have limited their acknowledgement of stakeholders to a relatively small number, often including employees, customers and stockholders.  However over the past few years, our awareness of the numbers of stakeholders who impact our outcomes has increased dramatically.  Some argue that most companies have at least 20 impactful stakeholder groups, whether they know it or not.

Nowadays information about our company can be accessed by anyone interested in it. This easily accessible information provides stakeholders with the tools to exert pressure on our companies if they choose to use them. And greater numbers of stakeholders are electing to do so.

Here are three of the many groups of likely company stakeholders to illustrate how their expectations have increased:

  • Activists. These groups, sometimes referred to as NGOs, are increasingly significant stakeholders. Many of them monitor the impact of business activities and legislation. Moreover, they work to increase awareness in the population at large of issues that could affect consumers and communities.  Social change is often the outcome. Nike revamped its labour practices in the ‘90s largely due to a boycott campaign. Likewise, Walmart raised its base pay for employees at least partially as a result of information that activists provided to the public about employees relying on government assistance.
  • Customers. In a similar vein, customer activism is also on the uptick. They are increasingly concerned about what goes into the products that they purchase. For example, consumers are looking more closely at the ingredients that go into foods and beverages. A study conducted in 2015 showed that 75% of global consumers believe that non-GMO foods are somewhat or a lot healthier.[ii] Likewise, consumers are beginning to show concern about the chemicals that go into cosmetics as well as household and personal care items. These issues do influence their buying choices.
  • Investors. These stakeholders have always been influential in our publicly traded companies. Now many are asking for more information about the risk of climate change to the companies in their portfolios. A 2015 study by Mercer showed that the majority of asset managers now take climate change predictions and models into consideration in their risk assessments.[iii]

To summarize, our companies’ futures are likely to be affected by trends that we can already attend to if we choose.  While many future challenges are predictable, how our companies choose to address them may boil down to two basic assumptions:  Defining what our role and purpose in the world is and who counts.  Companies must carefully examine their own assumptions related to these two issues in light of the many large global trends that will impact us all.

[i] http://insights.ethisphere.com/opinion-the-end-of-the-beginning-for-esg-issues/

[ii] http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Manufacturers/87-of-consumers-globally-think-non-GMO-is-healthier

[iii] http://www.theactuary.com/archive/old-articles/part-2/climate-change-looms-large-on-investment-risk-radar/

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

Democracy, democracy, and how to keep the sanity?

At the dawn of the primaries in the United States, there is much surprised rubbing of the eyes in front of the possibility that we might enter the U.S. election with a radical dreamer on the left (Bernie Sanders) and an egomaniac billionaire on the right (Donald Trump), both lining up the late-arriving Michael Bloomberg to represent the sane path down the middle. Both candidates play skillfully with two dangerous emotions: fear and anger. My grandmother had always advised that fear and anger were not wise counsellors.

Of course, it might all go very differently.Yet, at this moment in history, I am left wondering to what degree democracy actually ends up holding up to its promise of liberty and of considering “all men as equal”, the most profound meaning of the revolution according to Lincoln in his Gettysburg address in 1863. We seem far from this sentiment and clearly, “the common people” are angry and unhappy. To the extent of wanting to overthrow the elite in power with a man who has come to represent stupidity in many of its most vulgar dimensions? But is this a problem that only exists in the United States?

In Switzerland, we have our own Donald Trump as well. With a slightly better haircut, and only occasionally more moderated or sophisticated views, our Christoph Blocher still causes indigestion for many of us. If anything, our version has been more consistent and long-living and his political party has been on the rise. And yet, let us look at the two democracies and how good they are at preventing the madness that would threaten the very foundation they are built on.

The Unites States, like many democratic nations, lives an indirect democracy. This means, that the people elect their representatives that subsequently take decisions on their behalf. These representatives are grouped in political parties that people can choose to support, or not. In many countries, new political parties can emerge as a result of dissatisfaction with existing parties, in some not. For example, in Germany, the brand new party “Alternative für Deutschland” emerged after the Euro crisis and many people being unhappy about how Germany subsidizes the rest of Europe. In the Unites States, the bipartisan practice reigns, forcing political expression into two – opposing – camps. The only direct influence the people of the Unites States have is in the election of its representatives, including in the election of its President.

In Switzerland, which is one of the few direct democracies, things work exactly the other way around. While people still elect representatives that subsequently govern for them in two chambers, anybody who is able to collect 50,000 signatures on any topic will create a referendum which will be voted on by all citizens. We vote four times a year on three to four issues of all kind (examples: getting rid of the army, leaving the European Union, allowing minarets, etc.). And, also in opposition to the Unites States, the people don’t elect the President. Actually, it doesn’t even matter who is the President. We have removed all special powers from this position, with exception from an obligation and responsibility of representing Switzerland abroad, a sheer necessity to ensure other countries know who to talk to when they want the “top guy”. Our parliaments elect the seven Swiss ministers in accordance with an historic allocation of the top parties, meaning that each party can suggest one or two candidates for the ministry positions, depending on the size of the party in the country. Seven is a magic figure, preventing any party from a majority and requiring collaboration from all to achieve the much admired Swiss consensus. These elections also take place every four years, always on a Wednesday morning in early December, and ministers can be re-elected for as long as they want. Past ministers are paid a fair life-long salary for their kind service to the Swiss people. The President is determined by rotation among these seven ministers, for a period of one-year. Hardly enough to make any lasting connections internationally and to thus influence one way or the other very much. The foreign minister has more impact and power in the sense that she (we have more female ministers than male, these days) is likely to hold that position for a much longer period than just four years.

An important consequence of the Swiss system is that the government as such doesn’t change every four years as a result of presidential elections. It is unlikely that more than two or three ministers get replaced every four years, with many staying for much longer, thus providing a continuity that allows difficult issues to be tackled over the often required longer-term. It is also unlikely for any newly elected minister to replace the heads of the professionally run ministry she runs, these administrators often serve ministers of different parties and there is a tendency for the issue to matter more than the party-origin. This practice enables a sense continuity that is a valid and necessary safeguard against the kind of personalization of politics we are now seeing in the United States, where most likely both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders represent a voice of their party that may not actually reflect the dominant thinking of the parties at all.

In brief, in Switzerland, we suffer from “issues over personalities”, whereas the U.S. suffers from “personalities over issues”. In Switzerland, we are often confronted with having to vote on highly complex issues that by far not all citizens understand and where there is a high risk of political campaigns instrumentalizing voters on certain issues (a most recent example is the recent vote on foreigners). Worse, we have seen that people are quite incapable of voting in the interest of next generations when their own interests are at stake, not exactly very sustainable neither! In the United States, much time is spent on the personification of the next President, with issues being left to the lobbyists that surround the parliament like a sorry plague. Neither of these situations is ideal or perfect, and I am not even sure which one is better. My aim here was to start a discussion about different kinds of democracy – and there are many more than the two I have superficially compared here – and how they might best serve their original intent of liberty and equality among their people. How wise is it to impose a certain kind of democracy on a country with a history, which may or may not be able to even grasp this concept in a way that is in the best interest of its future? And how do we generate representatives that are able to fully represent not only current, but also future interests, of those not yet born. To me, that would be one of the hallmarks of true democracy in the context of limiting resources and dilemmas of dimensions that is threatening the very survival of our species in the not too distant future. Who has any answers for this?

Paris Treaty: Are Corporations up to the Challenges?

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability.

Last month, in anticipation of the COP21 meetings, my blogging partner, Katrin Muff, wrote about hope for a miracle in Paris. Her desire was for global leaders to come together to create a positive force in the world to address climate change. Now that the meetings have concluded, I believe most of us would agree that her hope was realized.  The outcome of the COP21 was an ambitious multi-country agreement that moves us forward in addressing the urgent issue of climate change.  However, as Jeff Nye states in the title of his recent SustainAbility blog,  We’ve come a Long Way from Rio but the Real Journey Starts Now.  He argues that this treaty merely “fires the starting gun on a quest to deliver a carbon neutral economy within the lifetimes of our grandchildren.”

While each of us owns responsibility for the achievement of this bold goal, individuals can only go so far in addressing the problems. For example, business enterprises contribute a large percentage of GHG emissions, through energy use, production processes, and greenhouse gases in products.   Thus corporations have an especially critical role to play if we are to achieve the treaty’s targets.

While some economic sectors are likely to be impacted by the agreement more than others, (see the EPA’s report on The Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2013) all companies can anticipate encountering the need for change.  In his discussions at COP21, Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, advocated abandoning business as usual.  And there are lots of signs that companies agreed to do just that.  For example, 114 companies signed onto the science-based climate goals in partnership with CDP, the World Wildlife Fund and the U.N. Global Compact.  The purpose of these collaborations is to assist companies in building low-carbon, better businesses.  These partnerships represent only one of several business alliances that have come together to tackle the climate change goals laid out in the treaty.   See A Cheat Sheet to COP21 Pledges.

While I am encouraged by these activities, I nevertheless wonder if corporations are really up to the task.  The questions that linger in my mind include the following:

  • Will companies change their company identities, communicate a new vision, revise business plans, and promote an organizational culture that can enable all of the above?
  • Will they embed sustainability considerations into their core business?
  • Or will they merely try to hammer their new commitments into their current business models and cultures, and relegate sustainability to projects that are peripheral to their core?

Through my consulting practice, I, along with my team, work with large global companies.   Most of the top-level executives state that a commitment to sustainability is important to their long-term success.  Yet many if not most times we find that their employees lack awareness of their leaders’ commitments and actions regarding sustainability.  Likewise, a very large percentage of employees fail to grasp how sustainability relates to their own jobs. Interestingly, most of the leaders with whom we work have been caught by surprise by their employees’ lack of awareness and understanding of the companies’ goals and actions regarding sustainability.  They seem to be less alarmed that their employees don’t connect with sustainability within their own contexts.

In general, we have reached the conclusion that either the leaders have not communicated nor demonstrated their commitments clearly, or their companies have not actually incorporated sustainability into the core business.  They most certainly have not embedded sustainability into all of their underlying processes or their employees would be more aware of how sustainability relates to their jobs. Yet all of these conditions are necessary if the leaders want to have a truly significant impact. Moreover, if the leaders wish to pursue the opportunities that the Paris treaty offers, they must enable an organizational culture that can support their endeavours.

Indeed, as Katrin stressed in her November blog, we are all in this together.  In the long-run our world has much to lose if we do not meet the goals established in Paris.  Businesses play a vital role in our actually reaching them.  Some companies will experience threats in the short-term due to business models that may not be in sync with the agreements.  On the other hand, the treaty also offers companies many opportunities. Those companies with leaders who can see the potential, act on the possibilities and truly enable a culture that can support the efforts will come out ahead of those who fail to do so.  My New Year’s wish is that corporate leaders will take a hard look at their business models and their organizational cultures and will ensure that both are congruent with the challenges ahead.

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

COP 21: Are current events shaping long-term decisions?

With the COP21, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change starting at the end November in Paris, I was anticipating to dedicate my blog this month on the topic of climate change. Nobody of course anticipated the possibility of the terrorist acts in the weeks leading up to the climate conference. I reflect in this blog about the effects of major current events and how they contribute to important long-term decisions we might otherwise not have taken.

We all remember the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011 which was a result of a tsunami wave that impacted the nuclear reactors. As a result, the German and Swiss governments took the courageous and significant decisions to set an end to their usage of nuclear power as a local energy source. It is believed that the Fukushima events played a favourable role in these important decisions.

Sometimes, we are afraid that terrible events simply end up with more regulations and restrictions without addressing the connected root causes. Such sentiments were expressed loud and clear after the inland security measures in the United States following the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The same concerns are now expressed after the Paris attacks which have resulted in tighter security measures and more power to the police and security forces at the expense of “democracy”. And while we all hope to be living in safe and just societies, we never quite know what price we have to pay for it.

Now, what if there were increasing positive outcomes of disastrous events? What if there were more ‘Hurricane Katrina’ outcomes, leading to more trusting communities, significantly better schooling and other highly positive social impacts as we can so gladly observe in New Orleans over the past decade? What if?


Hurricane Katrina sparked some positive changes.

What if the Paris terrorist attacks happened at just the right moment, so that we feel that little bit more human to realize that we are indeed one people and that indeed we live on one planet and that those in positions of decision-making power at the COP21 in Paris can indeed make the miracle we need come true and ensure we do not go beyond the two-degree temperature ceiling we need to survive on this planet? What if?

After all, Canada has just elected a new Prime Minister who finally gets it – just in time for the Paris climate talks. And President Obama is showing signs of being able to resist some strong forces and thus put an end to the planned but highly disputed North American natural gas pipeline. I am one of several thousand academics who have signed an urgent pleading letter to those in power to not exceed a 1.5 degree temperature ceiling. Our students actively send #EarthtoParis images and messages speaking out for the engaged civil society that we also are.

This is a message of hope. Hope, I find, is a noble human trait worth cultivating. A positive force in the face of adversity and difficulties. Let us hope for that miracle in Paris that we need in the coming days and weeks. And that Paris will be remembered for that unlikely positive outcome from a moment from absolute darkness. One candle can light an entire dark room. I am hopeful and I hope so are you! How do you spend your hope energy? What do you hope for? Whatever it is, hope it with all of your heart!

Why all of us should care about corporate culture

by Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read the previous post here.

On September 18, 2015 the Volkswagen Group received a notice of violation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the United States for intentionally programming their diesel engines to activate emissions controls only during laboratory testing.  According to the New York Times, this “diesel deception” could cause hundreds of deaths in the USA alone, due to the tons of pollutants released into the atmosphere.  And an October 28th headline in  the  New York Times proclaimed that “Volkswagen, hit by Emissions Scandal, Posts its First Loss in Years.”

Shortly after the scandal broke, CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned amid claims that his management style and the company’s “relentless drive for growth” contributed to the deceit.   Critics argued that VW’s corporate culture of arrogance, fear and blind obedience impeded communications and prevented employees from questioning orders.

Culture Counts!

The culture of an organization has a profound impact on company accomplishments in the long-term.   And the corporate culture also contributes to the impact that the organization has on all of us.  We are corporate stakeholders in our interconnected world.   The actions of our corporations can and often do have a profound impact on each of us as we are employees, customers, and citizens.  We share a common and increasingly endangered planet and how corporations treat it affects all of us.

What is Organizational Culture?

About now you might be asking yourself, “What is organizational culture anyway?”  First, there are several disparate views on how to define it.  My definition is simple. l believe organizational/corporate culture is shared attitudes, beliefs and values that hold a company or any other defined group together.  In more complex terms, organizational culture is composed of the collective viewpoints of group members about what actions are appropriate and, in fact, rewarded or punished. Culture is dynamic.  The collective shared assumptions that comprise it underlie behaviour.  It influences the choices that people make virtually every day.

Why Should We Care About Culture?

So why should we care about culture?  Company leaders should care because culture can affect an organization’s bottom line and impact its future. Just ask Volkswagen’s Board of Directors and stockholders! But even more important, all of us should care because these companies have an impact on our lives.

Here are three good reasons why you should care about corporate culture:

  1. Corporate culture impacts the engagement and wellbeing of all of us who are employees.  Overwhelming evidence indicates that employees want work to be meaningful. Our own individual wellbeing connects with our feeling that our efforts somehow make the world a better place.   We want to work for companies that are ethical and trustworthy.  I can’t help but wonder how the Volkswagen scandal is impacting the sense of wellbeing of its 600,000+ global employees.
  2. Corporate culture contributes to how we are treated as customers.  Fortune Magazine estimates that the VW scandal could cost each owner $5,000. And that isn’t the worst of it.  Owners of the VW Diesels that have been vomiting pollutants into our communities have to live with the fact that they unwittingly contributed to our planet’s degradation.
  3. Corporate culture has an impact on the wellbeing of our world.  Increasingly our companies function within a very broad global environment where many and varied stakeholder groups share a collective fate.  We are all stakeholders in relation to these companies.  Because we share the same planet, we share a common fate.

So what can we do to ensure that corporate cultures support healthy and ethical behaviours?  Most of us are consumers and many of us are employees.  All of us are global citizens.  In these roles we can press companies relentlessly to create cultures of transparency where every employee can speak up, customers are treated with respect, and ethics trump profits every time.

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

What if we considered border and boundaries issues as dilemmas and tensions?

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read the previous post here.

There is something hard and cold about borders and boundaries. Something exclusive, cutting-off and leaving out, separating the “us” and “them”. What if that was a way of operating that was simply outdated? Let us look at an alternative operating mode: one that builds on inclusion and cooperation and expresses itself through dilemmas and tensions, which need to be figured out, one step a time.

Taking up Kathy’s last month blog on borders and boundaries about the U.S., her topic resonates strongly with our current realities on this side of the Atlantic. Europe is currently facing a refugee crisis which points to geopolitical issues of significant scale and a complex range of problems, challenges, root causes, unintended consequences, tensions and more than anything moral dilemmas. The German “welcome culture” was loved for a short while and since has been heavily criticized, with borders having been reinforced in Southeastern Europe. We are looking very desperately for the one right approach to this problem, and I suggest that such a thing may simply not exist.

My limited understanding of the situation suggests that the face of Europe is about to be altered in deep ways and that we are in one of these moments in time, where we know that reality as we know it is no longer valid, yet it is unclear what is ahead of us. Fear may render us tense and worried about all we might have to lose and putting up borders an appropriate preventive action. Yet, if we acknowledge the human aspect of this and we consider the opportunity these additional people might bring to our culture, economies, communities, schools and families, many show a spontaneous reaction from the heart that is indeed welcoming and inclusive. It depends very much which emotion is stronger: love or fear? Again – what if there was no clear right answer and what if we had to deal with the tension between both of these emotions, recognizing the tensions many of us feel.

Looking at the Syria crisis from a macro perspective, we can wonder why the community of countries around the world has not acted earlier and why we are in this mess five years into a most ugly and bloody war. Right now, all eyes are on Presidents Obama and Putin and we are hoping that they will find a way to join forces in figuring out from the outside how to bring peace to this region. We may also wonder why the community of countries has failed to pay up the relatively small amount of money required to maintain the UN refugee camps in Syria’s neighbouring countries. With only 40% of the required funds paid up to date, the four million stranded refugees in these countries have indeed little to nothing to lose in attempting a very dangerous journey to Europe. Germany has put €6 billion aside to pay for its expected 100,000 refugees. This is roughly twice the amount of the unpaid funds of all rich countries to the local UN refugee camps. And that is just one country!

I was addressing Business School Lausanne graduates last Saturday at our annual graduation and discussed this issue with them. I pointed out to them that “if you take a look at the world right now, it becomes very clear that what the world needs more than anything is responsible actors. I am saying actors, not leaders – doers, not talkers. Leaders only in the sense of leading by example. Entrepreneurs, if you want. What we say at BSL is that entrepreneurship is above all an attitude – everybody can be an entrepreneur at any level of any organization.

In fact, I think we have three choices, when looking at the European refugee crisis:

First, we can point fingers and in the example of Syria highlight that Europe should have intervened in the Syrian war five years ago, or that UN member states should pay up the missing financial contributions to the UN High Commission of Refugees to support the refugee camps in the neighbouring countries of Syria that host 4 million refugees.

Or, secondly, we can emotionally distance ourselves and just disconnect from it all, somehow pretending this whole thing doesn’t concern us, and hoping the problem stops at our borders. We set our boundaries and exclude.

Or thirdly, we can attempt to figure out what we can do. And, clearly, this is the most difficult and challenging path. Any solution represents a moral dilemma and may bear more intended consequences than we imagine. There are no easy solutions to a highly complex problem. Yet, this is what the world of your and our future is made out of. Tensions and dilemmas of increasing complexity. To approach and solve these, we need the kinds of persons – actors and maybe leaders – that we dedicate our education at BSL for.

I invited our graduates to think themselves about the question that I am also asking myself:

“What can I do personally, what can we do institutionally at BSL and what can we do as a larger community of business educators?”

Let me share the little miracles we have managed to achieve just in the past three weeks. Starting from the largest of the above three levels, namely the community of business educators, we have managed to co-create and co-launch an unprecedented joined call of all global networks and agencies in business education, in conjunction with the UN Global Compact and the UN High Commission of Refugees, asking business school around the world to commit to action and to share their commitments on a global platform. All of that started just with a short email I had sent out to a group of right-placed friends on a Friday night. Listen here to the story.

One level down, at Business School Lausanne, we are working on ways to accommodate locally stranded refugees to start or continue their education as early as next February. The issue is complicated by the fact that we would like to accept refugees that have not yet received their visa (which can take several years) in order to help deal with the most critical integration phase – the first few months of arrival in a new country. For this, we need to receive approval from the Swiss Government. And, we need to override our entry criteria, as these refugees do not possess diplomas and transcripts that we would typically require. Not to mention that they might also require English language training and other competency-based support.

Last but not least, at an individual level, each of us has different options and opportunities. I have just recently read about three Dutch students and now young entrepreneurs, who have started within less than a week a free Airbnb-style initiative for refugees, called www.refugeehero.com. It matches those willing to host refugees in their homes with stranded refugees in need of accommodation.

I challenged our graduating students by asking them what each of their answer is to the question of what they can do? Themselves as individuals, in the organization they are or will be working, and in the community they will be living in? I reminded them of the values we had developed and lived with them. These are:

“be a positive force

have the courage to lead

be an entrepreneur

make responsible choices

be a professional

and: keep on learning: you don’t need to have all the answers – keep on welcoming change, be open to new things, remain curious and encourage others and yourself to keep asking the real questions…”

I closed my speech to them the same way I would like to end here:

“Dare to make a tough choice, and be prepared to stop, reflect and correct if you find out that a decision has not led you in the right direction. You don’t need to get it right every single time. But choose, take a stand, voice your opinion and trust your gut feeling. We need leaders who dare to be different, who dare to questions the status quo and who get the big picture of how to make this world a better place. Be part of the change that we need now, in these shaky and uncertain times.”