Saturday, September 22, 2007

Speaking sustainability, day 6

We had a great run at Business Strategies for Environmental Sustainability, from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, 2007. I thought it wouldn’t be possible but we actually peaked on the last day, when various threads came together (for me at least).

Kudos to organizer Professor “Wild” Bill Barnett and his team for a truly great learning experience. The topics and presenters were well chosen, with great variety yet also strong common threads. Bill’s wide-ranging summation sessions stimulated great discussion and much productive thinking. And to complete the success, the students brought powerful insight and perspective. Participants came from all sectors of the economy and brought with them all flavors of ideology. This very strong program is in its first year and deserves to continue.

It was interesting to find common mind on optimism and models for change this week. Like what? My view that big change always looks impossible, until afterwards, when it looks inevitable. The need to tolerate failure in prospecting for big change, because success is hard to predict.

Those are some of the big picture insights that weren’t entirely new. Others were more surprising. Like the value of learning from big business success, as a model of promoting social change. What other part of society has such an emphasis on changing how people live, act, think, and feel? And what’s better evidence of a successful approach than rapid business growth? The products and activities of a big business can be destructive, but effectiveness in getting people to change is something to learn from.

Why can I learn so much from a business school perspective? Simple really, the study of business strategies is just the study of change, and I’m in the business of promoting change. No wonder the insights are relevant.

I guess I have to admit that a business school perspective isn’t actually evil. That’s a surprise since business schools are viewed as the brain trust of capitalism, the place where people go to learn how to make money, and environmental dogma has sometimes held that money and capitalism are the enemy.

What have I missed by being so skeptical? Just the insights of smart people who’ve been studing social change for a long time, with some very incisive methods. This leads to the biggest take-home message I got from the program: change advocates can learn a lot from studying business strategies.

Now back to the real world of Reno airport. It's not the best place to ponder sustainability. Slot machines scream for attention while the airport’s great view dramatizes the “fish out of water” aspect of this city. Nevada-style development is simply out of place here; but something much more subtle might fit in.

What happens when I get back to my office and a bulging task list waiting for me? How do I bring the lessons from this class into my work? How long will it take? What can I say when asked what I learned? I don’t know yet. The insights aren’t a list of specific facts, they’re more like a way of thinking about problems. I won’t know what I learned until I tackle a new problem and see whether I tackle it differently. That should be fun to watch, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Thanks Bill, and I hope you got a nice dip in Fallen Leaf Lake last night.

Next comes my thoughts on Sam’s question in the comments…intersections between corporations and NGOs, and what makes them work in advancing sustainability.


Paul A. King said...

Mark: Your blog is relevant enough that it pops up in the No. 2 spot on my Google Alert on Sustainability this morning. I wish that the schedule had allowed me more time to discuss your work and blog while we were at the program together, but as you noted, the program was packed with activity for over 16 hours each day. Your new perspectives on business miror my new perspectives on NGOs. Professor Barnett pulled off something wonderfully stimulating and motivating here. PS: Had we spent more time at the Sierra Camp, we would have likely discovered that we have a common past worshiping the Sun God (as well as my wife Beth, and now my eldest daughter, Leah).

Keep in touch, Paul A. King

Mark Powell said...

Thanks for checking in Paul! More time would have been fun, but I think my brain would have exploded from too much input. Sun God as a shared interest, that's good to know. Let's do keep talking and see where that takes us.

Patricio Nunez said...

Mark: thank you so much for this blog. I am interested in attending this program myself and you definitely helped make up my mind.

Out of curiosity, how many participants attended the program?

Mark Powell said...


I think the course was around 30 people, a good size that provided a wide range of participants without being too large for discussion. I wholeheartedly recommend the course! Have fun with it! Say hi to Bill Barnett for me.