How to Solve our Most Intractable Problems

With talented business people squarely in the driver’s seat. I believe we can create an inspiring, engaging path to solving some of our most intractable problems. As the corporate social agenda moves from reducing harm to acknowledging the critically important role business plays in the well-being of society, the corporate agenda will be based on shared value that reinforces strategy for sustainable progress. But first we need to unlock and unleash the incredibly talented people in organizations who want purpose, passion, challenge, and meaning in their work. Given the pitiful statistics on lack of engagement of workers worldwide, we are sitting on a remarkable, underutilized pool of talent that can and must be applied to designing businesses that actually increase prosperity for all.

We can align the aspirational goals of business and society, and create environments where all the talent, millennials, GenXers and baby boomers alike, realize purpose, passion and meaning in their work. Here are five keys to doing just that!

  1. Create shared value in the context of the megatrends

The mega-forces bearing down on business and society can easily overwhelm even the most optimistic among us, causing us to be head down, and narrowly focused on what’s right in front of us to get through the next day, week, or month. Trying to confront the reality of global warming, climate change and the havoc it’s causing in extreme weather conditions, and its consequences around the world can cause extreme fear and paralysis for most people. Add to that our increasing environmental and human health vulnerability; biodiversity loss and rapid species extinction, resource constraints; persistent and growing inequality around the world, and many people are ready to throw up their hands.

When looked at through a different lens, however, these same megatrends become the context and fuel that propels us forward, individually and collectively. Through a sustainability lens we create meaning and give purpose to our work lives and bring out the best talent. We see more and more companies already beginning to learn how to make that happen.

  1. Develop core capacity for integrated thinking

I was recently asked to present at a conference sponsored by Skytop Strategies on how to develop the core capacity for “Integrated Thinking” – the theme of the conference. After considerable reflection, my Transitioning to Green colleagues and I conceptualized four essential elements that we believe are necessary to develop the core capacity for integrated thinking. These include: systems thinking, strategy development, collaboration and teamwork, and an integratedbottom line. When we talk about systems thinking, we mean the whole system, the whole earth, and how organizations are inextricably intertwined to ensure we have enough resources for all. We recognize that business cannot succeed in a society that fails, or a planet that is no longer hospitable to human life.

When we speak about collaboration and teamwork to build the core capacity for integrated thinking, there are things we can readily do. At its heart, collaboration is holistic and personal. So we need to promote frequent, cross-functional interaction, spread leadership and power throughout the organization, ensure people are accessible regardless of their level, mitigate fear of failure and turn failures into opportunities, and encourage broad input into decisions. Further, it’s important to provide people with opportunities for cross-pollination, supporting spontaneous or unscheduled interaction (both structured and unstructured), along with formal and informal mentoring.

  1. Engage employees’ hearts, hands, and minds

Three great examples of engaging employees’ hearts, hands, and minds come to mind.

Capital One does an exceptional job, using innovative strategies to engage its employees with community-based organizations (CBOs) to help shore up local business practices. In the process, Capital One develops its own talent, improves employee engagement and retention, enhances employee morale, all while improving community businesses. Their “winning formula” consists of three distinct types of associate involvement: Hands and Hearts, focusing on their company’s core competencies, and leveraging leadership throughout the process.

Ingersoll Rand integrates sustainability into the heartbeat of the company by capturing employees’ hearts and minds through a variety of employee-centered initiatives. To illustrate, the company’s One STEP Forward program introduces STEPs (sustainable, transformative, encourages others, and personal), for easy, effective actions, that employees can take to personalize sustainability.

  • Sustainable: Contributes to a better world.
  • Transformative: Supports you in living your values
  • Encourages others: inspires colleagues, friends, and family, and
  • Personal-Connects to something personally meaningful.

Caring Capital is a wonderful example of engaging employees’ hands and hearts to connect companies to causes. Through highly engaging philanthropic team-building activities, the company creates projects for employees to make and donate to charities. I’ve brought Caring Capital several times into both my undergraduate “Women Leading in Business” and “Employees and Organizations” MBA classes to demonstrate how you can simultaneously boost collegiality across functions, enhance corporate pride, and help the community.

  1. Focus on the positive

As an Organization Development practitioner, I’ve long been a believer in positive psychology and use appreciative inquiry extensively in my consulting practice. Most recently, I have become one of the early adopters of an exciting project called AIM2Flourish. The initiative is a UN-supported platform that recognizes untold positive stories of profitable business innovations, discovered and written by business students. AIM2Flourish seeks to change the narrative about business: “We believe that solving the world’s greatest challenges can also be profitable, and that business is a powerful force for good to create a flourishing world for all.”

To accomplish this, AIM2Flourish is creating a global community of business students, professors, and business leaders to create a worldwide resource for sharing positive business stories, and become a catalyst for positive business change. Two of my classes at Rutgers University and Bard are participating in the project this semester, and are enjoying learning how to using appreciative inquiry in the process of collecting their stories.

Significantly, the AIM2Flourish innovations are all focused on one or more of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. In this manner, we are engaging students’ hearts, hands, and minds to focus on identifying scalable or replicable innovations that simultaneously benefit the business and society.

  1. Use tools and social media to capture the “aspirationals”

Gamification engages the hearts, hands, and minds of students, managers and executives, as players develop their ability to run a sustainable company for the short, medium, and long-term. The GlobStrat triple-bottom-line strategic business simulation is one of our favorite tools for promoting integrated thinking around triple-bottom-line strategy. Players participate in a multi-year, team-based competition among companies to learn how to put sustainable, triple-bottom-line business strategies into practice. The simulation uses a cross functional team design to boost mutual learning, knowledge sharing, creativity and innovation – essential elements of a culture for sustainability. The program inspires, prepares and grooms leaders and managers for the purpose-driven business arena of the 21st century. Over 20,000 managers and executives have participated in this program, and we have embedded it as the centerpiece of our LeaderShip for Sustainability program.

At the Michigan Ross Positive Business Conference, attendees engage with thought leaders and the latest research on positive business approaches that yield extraordinary results, and leave with a plan to translate inspiration into action when they return to their organization.

Here is the one hour panel I did on May 12 at the Ross Positive Business Conference.

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