Context, Put Into Practice

Sustainability Transformation’s Learning Curve

  • Text Hover
A. The illusion of learning
  • Mastering the rhetoric (Net Zero, Climate Neutral, Circular Economy, etc.)
  • Grafting programs onto the old organization (CSO role, ESG Reporting, SDGs, etc.)
  • Knowing enough to be dangerous (Green growth, Carbon offsetting, CCS, Hydrogen is sustainable, GRI, ISSB, Financialization of nature, etc.)
  • The same old premises are at work (growth at all costs, company as machine vs. organism, management by results, efficiency vs. sufficiency, maximizing vs. optimizing, relative targets vs. absolute, cost reductions vs. cost avoidance, etc.)

B. Sufficient understanding to see that “we don’t know much”
  • The “A-ha” experience (Planetary Boundaries, Biophysical Economics, Doughnut Economics, EROI, Ecological literacy, Systems thinking, Carrying capacities and thresholds of vital capitals, Limits to growth, Overshoot & degrowth, Indigenous knowledge and approaches, etc.)
  • The beginning of the integration of knowledge and know-how (Company sustainability policy, Employee sustainability charter (aka license to act), Sustainability Focals in all functions, Scientific approach (e.g. Toyota Kata), PDSA, etc.)

C. Real learning begins 
(Unity of knowledge and action (zhi xing he yi), Context-based strategies and solutions, Management by means, Building the sustainability knowledge value stream via new competencies, Programs for continuous learning to identify and close knowledge gaps, 'Success Assured' decision-making, etc.)
  • Text Hover
At the peak of his influence, quality pioneer W. Edwards Deming did not get much love from business leaders. His key messages were about the need for fundamental change in the way they thought about work and the way it was managed. He attributed the root cause of most quality failures to the management systems themselves and their processes and not the people and poor workmanship.

This modified Deming illustration is borne from my perception that most of what passes for sustainability in corporate environments amounts to an illusion of progress. Reducing unsustainability will not lead us to sustainability. Good intentions are great, but where is the evidence of ‘new thinking and doing’ that is proven out in results that are not in the “reducing unsustainability” category? Where is the evidence of the creative destruction at the working process level (the “how”) where business as usual (the "what") needs to be re-imagined?

🥊 Mike Tyson’s famous quote “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” correlates with point B―the “a-ha” moment when contradictions between ESG strategies and overshooting planetary boundaries penetrate the blinkered psyche of the enterprise. Reality sets in.

The overwhelming focus on ESG reporting is very much evidence that organizations are currently in the A phase with B fast approaching. ESG Reports are closer to a (mis)diagnosis but are treated like prescriptions. The real work lies in wayfinding (the what) required to soundly respond to context and deliver results (the means, the new capabilities―the how) which respect planetary boundaries.

👉 “Each system is perfectly designed to give you exactly what you are getting today.” ― W. Edwards Deming

👉 “We are being ruined by the best efforts of people who are doing the wrong thing.” ― W. Edwards Deming

👉 “Transformation is not automatic. It must be learned; it must be led.” ― W. Edwards Deming

❓ Disagree? 🤬

Did I miss something? 🤦‍♂️

Put something in the wrong place?

Too cynical?

Happy to have your thoughts and counterarguments in the comments below… 🙏



Jim Banks

Jim is a Sustainability Advisor based in Montreal.