Intervening in systems: Three steps to sustainability success

If we see the world as a complex and inter-connected web of systems, what can we do to promote sustainable transformation? How do we go beyond simple mechanical models of change to be influential in a complex systems world?

What is it to lead change for sustainability?

Throughout our two-year programme at Ashridge Business School, participants of the MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility grapple deeply with that question in a very real and practical way. They work with multiple theories about change and hear inspiring stories of transformation.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Our participants, who come from all over the world and hold diverse positions of leadership in their professional, community and family lives are challenged over and again to apply what they are learning to the reality of their lives. And with that, the question starts to evolve becoming more personal and relevant.

So what is it to lead change for sustainability, for me, at this particular moment in time?

Here are three ways that might help someone approach this spiky question.

1) Sense the system

Some of the big issues of this time can seem intractable. As previous articles in this series have highlighted, the fossil-fuel based, globalised economy on which much of business is based is coming under pressure from a range of earth system issues like resource depletion, bio-diversity loss, climate change and so on.

These are ‘wicked problems’ – problems that are systemic and interconnected – that require an awareness of the system in which you are acting and how things connect. Systems thinking theories and tools help build this awareness but it is continued practice of taking a systemic view that will help establish it.

2) See the space to manoeuvre

Systemic awareness can be both liberating and overwhelming. We work on the programme with systems ideas that explain how industrial, political, social and financial systems mesh together in such a way that makes change difficult.

This interlock between our sociotechnical systems create for example what Gregory Unruh calls ‘carbon lock-in’ – an interdependent dynamic stability between systems that holds everything in place.  

This is not really a new idea.  As far back as 1952 the sociologist Max Weber argued that all of society was locked in “an iron cage” by industrialism until such times as “the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt”. How does one break out of that? Sounds gloomy.

Well yes and no. The trick is to change our way of seeing. Weber’s remark exemplifies a highly rational way of seeing the organization as a bureaucracy – an efficient machine that passes information between distinct points of activity with clear cause and effect.

On the MSc, we look at how different mental maps and metaphors can dissolve previously perceived hard lines and open up space that previously wasn’t there. When we start to see organisations as living systems or as meaning-making systems – the iron cage melts away.

3) Make timely moves and learn from them

Our theorising is all well and good. But what are the implications of this? What does it mean in practice to move from a more Newtonian view of change to something altogether more complex?

Intervening is no longer a case of stopping the machine, tinkering around and restarting it. It becomes instead something altogether more experimental – a matter of taking a timely step, following a vision, sensing what’s going on around you.

Making a move – one that is well-judged rather than needing to be absolutely right or wrong.And then reflecting on what happens – learning from it. And this is where action research comes in. Its cyclical, experience-based approach helps our participants move from theories to action, becoming real-life agents for change in whatever part of the system they are embedded.


So let’s ask again, what is it to lead change for sustainability, for me, at this particular moment in time?

Well the question still stands and is worth asking repeatedly. Leading change for sustainability is a messy but rewarding business. Over the years in my action research work I’ve gathered stories from men and women involved in highly innovative, and exciting sustainability projects across the community and local government sector in the UK.

Nobody mentioned an iron cage though they did mention meetings where inter-organizational boundaries didn’t matter. No-one mentioned grand plans or theories of change. Instead the picture I’ve arrived at is one of fallible humans innovating together with tenacity and vision in the face of shifting agendas and changing fortunes.

So it seems like continually asking the question deeply and sincerely is part of what it is to lead change and intervene in the systems of which we’re a part.

It’s an interesting time to be alive. The world is changing and businesses, communities and institutions are finding fascinating ways to respond. For each individual, finding a meaningful way to engage creatively with that seems to be what leading change for sustainability is all about.

Margaret Gearty is a research fellow of ACAR and co-director of the Action Research Skills programme which launched in 2012. An experienced action researcher, Gearty has worked on the design and delivery of several large-scale action research projects that take a systemic view of issues such as food, energy and sustainability. 

edie has partnered with Ashridge Business School for this series of articles focused on growing international debate and practice around sustainability. The next part is titled ‘Developing real participation and justice’.

Read all parts of the series so far here.

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