Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Saving Ourselves or Saving the World – Starting a Necessary Conversation

 Earth Day... Get's it Backwards

As Earth Day 2022 fades into the distance, it is worth recalling that on that day we were once again exhorted to save the world, save the planet, save the earth, save the whale, save the forests, protect the environment, and so on.  And these are noble objectives.  And we are told that our future, saving ourselves, somehow depends on how well we "save the world" – although how exactly is usually not made clear.  But I believe all this is backwards.

Douglas Adams agrees saying "we don’t have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it".

Putting Humanity First, and...

We are human, anything and everything we do comes from our consciousness, so in our thoughts and actions we cannot be anything other than anthropocentric – we cannot help but put ourselves first.  Indeed, many would say putting considerations other than human well-being first was not ethical.  

But, we are also animals. So, we, like all other land-based life on this planet, live in the tiny 6km high Critical Zone... from the soil beneath our feet to the top of the breathable atmosphere. So all our actions are always going to occur within, and impact what occurs within, the Critical Zone.   (For more on the Critical Zone please read this two-part blog post)

From this, I believe it becomes clear.  Since we are humans we have no choice but to put humanity first.  What we decide we want, the needs that we have, the direction we choose to take, and how we choose to get there, must be the primary questions that we need to respond to today.

But we can't respond to these questions in a vacuum.  Definitely not.  We must respond to these questions within the context of the life-giving Critical Zone upon which we depend – its abundance and its limitations.   If we ignore this context in our choices and behaviour we are simply putting our future well-being and the well-being of future generations at risk.

Indeed many would say that deciding that we want to head in a direction that requires us to damage the very life-giving systems upon which we depend is not ethical either.

And to be clear on the urgency: our current behaviour, based on our current decisions about what we want and how we go about getting it, very largely ignores the impact of our choices on the life-giving Critical Zone upon which we depend.  Clearly, this is unsustainable – for us!

What Do We Want?

We haven't had a widespread conversation about what we as a species want and how to get there since the Bretton Woods conference at the end of the 2nd World War.  As we experience every day, the assumptions made back then were fundamentally flawed since they ignored the necessary interplay between human well-being, human actions and our planet. (See this blog post for more).

The conservation and environmental movements have done a tremendous amount to protect, and in some cases restore, the life-giving Critical Zone.  However, none has addressed the systemic causes of the systematic damage we are doing to the life-giving Critical Zone. 

Indeed, in day-to-day culture, away from the conservation and environmental movements, the opposite is true.  Every day our modern culture reinforces the idea that we humans are incredibly inventive, and able to solve any problem – even those created by our own past actions.  We now acknowledge we created the climate crisis.  We now acknowledge certain resources, like fossil fuels, are finite.  And we now acknowledge that certain services provided by our planet, such as climate regulation, or freshwater cycling, can be significantly perturbed by our actions – harming ourselves and future generations.  

But, in all these cases we are told that we can solve these problems if we put our minds to it.  Indeed such is our confidence that we can solve all these problems and more, that we believe we can do so in ways that will avoid mass human suffering.  But I believe this is a highly risky bet, verging on, if not actually hubris, arising from our modernist mindset (See this two-part blog post on the impact of modernism and the Critical Zone).

What To We Do Now?

My belief is it does start with a conversation, around the world, about what do we as humans want?  What do we aspire to be?  What level of well-being should we be aiming for?   And, at the same time, we need education about what the world does, the processes of the Critical Zone, to give us the possibility for life, and perhaps more, flourishing. 

From these two learning loops, one an internal reflection, the other an external exploration, we might come to a new understanding of how to meet our needs in ways that enable the possibility for humans and all life on this planet to flourish for generations to come (John Ehrenfeld, MIT). 

Naive perhaps?  But what alternative do we have?

UN75 – A Start to the Necessary Conversation

It's worth noting that at the start of 2020 the UN Secretary-General did try, before COVID, to start this conversation as part of the marking of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN.  He launched the single biggest consultation in humanity's history asking essentially "what is it that we want?"  For more see this post for the launch of this consultation and this post for the results.  

Of course, this didn't get anything like the attention it needed to be truly effective because of COVID... but it is good step in the right direction.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Why Flourishing?

What Should the Purpose of My Business Be?

If you ask me "What should the purpose of my enterprise be?", if we've never talked before, I'd reply that your purpose should be realizing "true sustainability".  By this I mean sustainability:
  • That "does good to do well
  • That integrates social, environmental, and economic factors (and doesn't see them as a set of trade-offs that prioritizes money)
  • Where enterprises excel because people are flourishing and nature is thriving
  • Informed by the latest science, ethical frameworks, and deep indigenous wisdoms

I believe that choosing true sustainability as the purpose of all organizations is the only ethically defensible answer for an entrepreneur or leader of an established enterprise to give in today's increasingly uncertain world.

But that's not the end of the story... if we talked a little more I'd quickly highlight why the term "sustainability" itself is very problematic

Why Not Sustainability?

First, I think that true sustainability is a rather unexciting way to think about things!  I think that sustainability is an insufficient aspiration for the future of humanity.  I think that the very word sustainable / sustainability constrains our thinking about possible opportunities and risks.  Plus, these words have little emotional content, they are unlikely to get you or your Stakeholders fired up and excited. 

Also, there are many definitions of sustainability, e.g. sustainable development based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).  But this approach doesn't meet our definition of true sustainability, as sustainable development still assumes, like our current unsustainable economic approach, infinite growth on a finite planet.  (For a deep dive on this topic see the blog post "Evolving from Sustainable Development")

So it can be very confusing these days to use the word sustainable – it's not very exciting, there are many definitions, and none of the ones in common use means "true sustainability"

If Not Sustainability,
What Could Be a Better Purpose / Vision / Why?

So what could be a better purpose for our enterprises than sustainability, even true sustainability?  A purpose that...
  • Talks about how we should aim to be "the best we can be" – individually and in our organizations
  • Gets stakeholders excited so they are attracted to work with us
  • Aligns with the latest science, ethical frameworks, and deep indigenous wisdoms
  • Is morally and ethically defensible
  • Helps enterprises gain and retain viability
  • Helps enterprises innovate in face of an uncertain future
  • Clearly differentiates from all other definitions of sustainability
Let me share my journey to find a purpose / vision / why for all enterprises that meet the above objectives...

What is the Highest Level of Potential Humans Can Reach?

This is the question that was asked a number of years ago by a group of psychologists who were looking to define what a fully healthy human being looks like, rather than to identify more ways a human may not be healthy, i.e. mental illnesses.   This group called themselves "positive psychologists", i.e. they wanted to look at the positive side of human experience, well-being and wellness, not illth and illness. 

The positive psychologists came up with a simple graphic to illustrate the possible range of individual human experience:

And as you can see, they decided to use the word "flourishing" to describe the highest level of human potential, the highest level of human experience.

Flourishing as *THE* Purpose for Individuals and Enterprises

When we saw this image and learned about the work of the positive psychologists we thought... well if the highest level of human experience is called flourishing, then surely the best possible purpose for all human enterprises would be to create the possibility for all their stakeholders to flourish!

This was our inspiration for moving away from using the word sustainable to describe the best possible purpose / vision / why and choosing instead to use the word "flourishing".

Benefits of the Defining the Purpose / Vision / Why of
Enterprises as Flourishing

We see six major benefits of choosing, as the purpose for your enterprise, "creating the possibility for human and all other life to flourish on our planet for generations to come, enhancing the integrity, beauty, and regenerative capacity of living communities."
(Adapted from Prof. John Ehrenfeld, MIT and Michelle Holliday)
  1. Flourishing is something everyone gets to define for themselves
  2. Aiming-to-flourish is exciting and generates new possibilities for individuals and enterprises
  3. It is practical – its what the science says
  4. It is the right thing to do – it is morally and ethically sound
  5. It is the best way to gain and retain financial viability
  6. It maximizes the possibility for innovation to better face an uncertain future
For a deep dive on these six benefits see the blog post "Six Reasons for Enterprises to Aim-to-Flourish"

(If you really want to use the word sustainability / sustainable then you could say what you're trying to sustain is the possibility for all life to flourish... i.e. sustainable flourishing cf. sustainable development.)

What Do I Advise?  Flourishing

So if you ask me what I believe is the best possible purpose / vision / why for any enterprise to adopt I will say clearly... the best possible purpose is:  "creating the possibility for human and all other life to flourish on our planet for generations to come, enhancing the integrity, beauty, and regenerative capacity of living communities."
(Adapted from Prof. John Ehrenfeld, MIT and Michelle Holliday)

What do you think?  

How could adopting this purpose help your enterprise flourish? 

Please comment below.

Six Reasons for Enterprises to Aim-to-Flourish

So why would entrepreneurs and leaders of established enterprises want to adopt goal of aiming-to-flourish as the core of their business's purpose? (Sometimes, called a vision statement, or a statement of why).  Why would a business want to adopt sustainable flourishing as their practical definition of sustainability, rather than sustainable development or some other definition of sustainability?

Aiming to flourish means that all parts of human societies, including businesses and other organizations, will 

Strive to create the possibility for humans and all other life to flourish on this planet for generations to come, enhancing the integrity, beauty, and regenerative capacity of living communities.

(with thanks to John Ehrenfeld, MIT and Michelle Holiday)

This goal can be summarized as "sustainable flourishing".  This is a radically different idea of sustainability from the more common "sustainable development" that prioritizes the sustaining of (economic) development not of flourishing (see this blog post for an exploration of the differences).  Sustainable flourishing is also radically different from the financial profit-centric definitions currently popular: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environment Society Governance (ESG).  These both continue to prioritize sustaining financial profit and not flourishing.

Enterprises that aim-to-flourish, that aim to create the possibility for flourishing, do not just prioritize financial profit, though they, of course, must be financially viable.  Instead, enterprises aiming-to-flourish attempt to maximize multiple streams of benefits: for society and all the enterprises stakeholders, the environment upon which society is utterly dependent, and the economy created to help members of society better meet their needs.  Enterprises aiming-to-flourish generate social benefits, they regenerate the environment for all their stakeholders and they are sufficiently financially viable to continue to exist.  These enterprises excel because people are thriving and the environment is flourishing.

There is another important aspect of the aiming-to-flourish goal: this goal is an example of what Dr. Russ Ackoff described as an "ideal goal" back in the 1970s.  By ideal, Russ did not mean impossible or utopian.  An ideal goal is highly practical.  It is a goal that can be approached without limit, and, in making this attempt, generates a considerable ongoing stream of benefits.  For example, one might say humanity has an ideal goal of exploring our world and the universe beyond.  Clearly, we will never explore everything everywhere, so there is no limit to our exploration.  But by striving to explore everywhere much of humanity has received, and hopefully, all of humanity will also receive tremendous benefits: increased life expectancy and improving levels of happiness.

So, returning to the opening question: why would entrepreneurs and leaders of established enterprises want to adopt the ideal goal of aiming-to-flourish as the core of their business's purpose / vision / why? .  Why would a business want to adopt sustainable flourishing as their practical definition of sustainability?

There are six reasons leaders are adopting aiming-to-flourish as the core purpose for their enterprise.  I will briefly introduce them here and expand on each in future blog posts.

One: Everyone Gets to Define Flourishing for Themselves. You can't tell someone what their own experience of flourishing is, could, or should be – it is up to each person to determine.  This means that each person's definition of flourishing is based on their worldview.  You can't impose a definition of flourishing based on an external worldview.  This means enterprises with the purpose of sustainable flourishing will listen closely to all those the organization touches positively or negatively – whether or not they are recognized as stakeholders.  How many opportunities could be identified, and how many risks could be avoided, through such a close listening process?

Two: Aiming-to-Flourish is Exciting. Aiming-to-flourish passes a key marketing test: does it inspire and excite the desired audience to action?  There is no point in adopting an organizational purpose or a  definition of sustainability, individually or organizationally, that is boring, uninspiring, and blah!  This is a major problem with current definitions of sustainability.  Instead flourishing offers people an inspiring and hopeful vision for their personal future and their renewed relationships with organizations.  How powerful would your brand be if it authentically aimed to help stakeholders flourish? How much sales and marketing cost could be avoided if your stakeholders were attracted to you rather than you having to seek them out?

Three: It is Practical. Science is now clear in physics, chemistry,  biology, ecology, and even in the social sciences on two points: (1) There is an understanding that the only constant on this planet is change.  This means it is a practical impossibility to keep things the same, to sustain any thing.  So what can we aim to sustain?  We can strive to sustain a possibility for all – flourishing.  Flourishing, unlike sustainability, is not an event at a point in time.   (2) There is an understanding that the processes of life will result in ecosystems that flourish – they exist at their highest level of potential. So flourishing is an unfolding process that occurs naturally in living systems as the world changes.  These two realities make sustaining flourishing as a possibility highly practical.  How much benefit could be realized for stakeholders by working with the flourishing forces and processes of nature, including human nature?

Four: It is the Right Thing To Do.  Philosophers from Aristotle to, most recently, positive psychologists have described flourishing as the process of attaining and retaining the highest possible level of our inherent potential.  Whether as an individual or an enterprise aiming to flourish is striving to be the best that we can be.  From personal goals of self-knowledge to attaining spiritual enlightenment to honor a deity,  aiming to flourish creates the best possible chance to realize these in practice.   How attractive would your enterprise be to all its stakeholders if it declared an authentic intention to help all of them to flourish?

Five: It is the Best Way to Gain and Retain Financial Viability.  Unlike financial profitability, flourishing applies to every facet of human lived experience. Aiming-to-flourish implies exploring not only traditional sources of financial profit but also exploring opportunities to create benefits socially and environmentally.  And Aiming-to-flourish also implies going beyond traditional sources of risk to become aware of new sources of risk emerging from the social and environmental perspectives.  In today's world, where increasingly opportunities and (financial) risks emerge from the social and environmental perspectives, adopting flourishing brings in the social and environmental with the financial to organizations strategy development and execution processes.  How many new opportunities could your enterprise find, and how much risk could be mitigated, by strategically working with all your stakeholders to flourish socially, environmentally, and financially?

Six: It Maximizes the Possibility for Innovation to Better Face an Uncertain Future.  It is well known that the most innovative innovations come by bringing together highly diverse people, ideas, and situations.  New inspiring ideas are much less likely to emerge from the same people, with the same ideas in the same situations. Further, the potential for significant innovation comes from appreciating current situations and asking how good could we make them, rather than looking for problems to fix.  Since aiming-to-flourish means always striving for the ideal, innovation processes in enterprises that adopt this purpose automatically become more effective.  How many new ideas to enable sustainability-as-flourishing could your enterprise find and bring to market, by innovating with all your stakeholders socially, environmentally, and financially?

To close let's return to the observation of Simon Sinek:  "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it".  People buy based on the alignment of their purpose in the world with yours.  What could be a better why, a better more exciting, and inspiring purpose, for all your stakeholders than aiming to help all of them flourish?  To help create, for them, the possibility for flourishing.