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strategy and business
Published: February 24, 2009

 
 

Sustainable Goes Strategic

He derides cap and trade schemes as a “hide the ball” strategy, and pushes for broad market price signals such as large increases in hydrocarbon fuel taxes; serious, stable incentives for alternative energy investment; and national renewable-energy mandates. He goes on to discuss winning the war on terrorism by “out-greening al-Qaeda” (the U.S. military, it turns out, has a “green hawks” movement); the prospect of competing with China through energy efficiency and green technologies; and a clear discussion of how countries such as Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and New Zealand have driven their alternative-energy sectors with subsidies, tariffs, guaranteed markets, and other incentives.

To people immersed in the subject for years, Friedman’s thesis could seem obvious. But the recent history of the United States suggests that, on this subject at least, it is necessary for skilled, informed, and widely read polemicists like Friedman to write big, bristling books about the insanely obvious and flog them on every talk show.

Industrial-strength Leadership
Meanwhile, thoughtful executives will ask, How can we drive such a fundamental shift throughout our organization? Sustainability is, fundamentally, an issue of organiza­tional development.

One book addresses this ques­tion directly, skillfully, and with a wealth of detailed examples from decades of practice: The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World, by Peter Senge et al. Senge, of course, is the author of The Fifth Discipline, a management classic named by the Financial Times as one of the five greatest business books of all time; he was also the founding chair of an international consortium called the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL). This book is the result of years of SoL work helping major organizations “go green” and confront the challenges of a changing natural environment. (See “The Next Industrial Imperative,” by Peter Senge, Bryan Smith, and Nina Kruschwitz, s+b, Summer 2008.) The book features such seemingly improbable examples as the transformative and culturally difficult partnership between the World Wildlife Fund and Coca-Cola, the eco-transformation of Nike, the multi­faceted genesis of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for green buildings, and the way that BMW’s interest in the lifetime eco-footprint of its products led to the E.U.’s “end-of-life vehicles” directive.

In detailed examples, Senge and his coauthors work through difficult questions, such as how to get groups working together toward common goals when they come from radically different cultural backgrounds (Coca-Cola bottlers in Thailand and U.S. not-for-profit wildlife advocates), distinct industry sectors (heating and air conditioning, architecture, materials, civil engineering, and real estate development), or diverse points of view within an organization. They also discuss how to find allies across organizations; how to structure interviews and meetings, balancing advocacy with deliberate listening, to move toward a common vision; and how to help people set aside their prejudgments to hear one another’s actual interests and concerns.

The book is sprinkled with practical “toolbox” sections that feature specific organizational tactics such as “building a sustainable value matrix,” “stakeholder dialogue interviews,” and “guidelines for growing a strategic microcosm.” To the more technically oriented (or the more impatient), such tool sets may seem like a sandbox for the organizational development department. But such a point of view would be deeply mistaken. The core challenges of changing the way the world works are not technical but organizational, cultural, and interpersonal. The Necessary Revolution describes the industrial-strength relationship building, vision articulation, and leadership that the world needs now as it never has before.

All these books and resources, each one in its own way, make it clear that it is time to act. It is not enough to survive the financial crisis, or to keep shareholders and investors happy. We in business are being called to engage with the forces that make life possible. Can we do what’s needed in time? These books start to show us how.

 
 
 
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Sustainability Resources
Works discussed in this review.

  1. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (W.W. Norton, 2008), 412 pages
  2. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005), 586 pages
  3. Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How It Can Renew America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 448 pages
  4. Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy (Basic Books, 2005), 242 pages
  5. Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn, Earth: The Sequel — The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming (W.W. Norton, 2008), 280 pages 
  6. William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002), 196 pages
  7. Peter Senge et al., The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World (Doubleday, 2008), 416 pages
  8. Alex Steffen, editor, Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century (Abrams, 2006), 608 pages
  9. Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007), 336 pages 
  10. Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (Simon & Schuster, 1991), 934 pages 
 
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