Thursday, January 31, 2008

Chance Climate Change Conversations

I was traveling in New Jersey earlier this week. Instead of logging another isolated and dispirited evening in the hotel room, I decided to venture forth for dinner. I decided to backtrack to a pub I passed earlier in the day called Molly Malones; it had the look of a "local" place, a nice alternative to the chain restaurants down Route 10 in Whippany. (image from gravybread)

I walked in expecting to see a half empty place with plenty of room for a thirsty scholar to plop down, have a beer and some dinner, and dig into some reading; "Difficult Conversations" was on the agenda. The place was hopping for a Tuesday evening, with a group of office folks from Novartis carrying on in the corner celebrating some sort of occasion, along with full barstools. I crammed myself on the corner between a pair of gents chatting about work and a pair of women chatting about work; interesting background noise for reading.

The important part of this little adventure is that I ended up having a great conversation with the two gentlemen to my left about energy, climate change, oil, the Middle East, and other various "big" topics. It was an innocuous comment about being in graduate school at BGI to learn how to do business without destroying the planet that started the conversation.

We ended up talking about issues that never seem to come up in everyday conversations, and in some cases we became quite animated about it. What I found quite interesting was that the issue of climate change, while something they had both heard and knew of, was perceived in a way vastly different than mine...and I assume they represent more of what people thank than I do. While one of the gentlemen doubted the science behind the assertion that climate change has been hastened by anthropogenic activities, the other was more sanguine; he felt that people were aware of the issue, but did not see how they could possibly have any impact on it. It is simply "too big" for the average person to take hold of as something to be concerned with. That certainly seems to be the case. We did agree that traffic is one of the major scourges of our society, and that we are all part of the problem (I drove 1500+ miles last month...just for business!)

I respected their opinions, and realize that we all have filters defined by past experiences that define our views. There was something in my perception, something that told me they lacked a certain acceptance of a collective responsibility for the world we inhabit. What does that mean? Who am I to make such a statement? Aren't we all just Homo Economicus, working for our own self-interest?
  • Why is it that we have become a species so unconcerned with the welfare and stewardship of the world we inhabit and the world that supports our existence?
  • What has caused us to become disconnected from the natural world?
  • What will it take for us to remember our responsibility for nurturing the world for our benefit and the benefit of future generations?
These are not easy questions, and I am certain that most answers are ones that I will not like to hear.

The fact that I had a meaningful conversation with two complete strangers about issues that are global, massive, confusing, and intractable refreshed and surprised me. Willingness to talk about these things in an open-minded and curious way is one step in the right direction; one conversation at a time.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Green MBA News

A few things have come up related to "Green MBA" programs over the past few weeks that bear a bit of time. Most recently, one of my BGI classmates alerted me to the launch of the Harvard Business Review's HBRGreen site, "A Discussion about Leadership and the Environment", as indicated from their homepage. The welcome video clip from Thomas A. Stewart, Editor and Managing Director of the Harvard Business Review introduces the site as something important and necessary given the magnitude of the climate change challenge, ending with the phrase, " your company is better positioned for the opportunities and risks of a carbon constrained world." (Image from bitweavers)

The fact that HBR launched this site is a good thing, and echoes the comments made by a member of Sustainable Step New England I ran into at the New Ecology Sustainable Development Forum at MIT last week. He has been working in the "sustainability" space for quite some time, long enough to remember when "green" issues and resources were few and far between. Now, he says, he cannot keep up with the news and resources. I feel the same way. This is a good thing.

On the green MBA front, Marlboro Graduate Center welcomed their first MBA in Managing for Sustainability this weekend in Brattleboro, VT. It is good to see another small college making the innovative plunge into the susMBA space here in the Northeast.

I am curious to see how quickly the "mainstream" business schools flock to the green issue as a marketing tool and a curriculum addition. Perhaps it is already integrated farther than I am aware of.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Telling the Story

The first weekend Intensidency (or is it Resitensive, a mash-up of intensive and residency) at BGI just wrapped up. I am seated in the waiting area for gate A10 in SeaTac airport, a gate I have become quite familiar with since the start of my BGI adventure in October. There is a Nor'easter sweeping up the Atlantic coast toward Boston this evening. I am optimistic that we will make it, but I could end up in...somewhere else. The storm is forecast to arrive with some ferocity at about the same time as the flight is due to arrive. (image courtesy of The Story of Stuff)

The field of "sustainability" is about telling the story of a global economic system that values social, and natural capital with the same veracity and passion as it values economic capital. This was reinforced for me over the weekend through two stories; one about "stuff" and the global economy and one about a T-shirt. The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard is a web-based 20 minute video that provides a baseline introduction to the hidden problems with our linear production systems associated with the consumer economy. Depending upon one's outlook, it can be depressing, interesting, exciting, infuriating, and maybe all of the above. It is worth watching.

The story a small company sells about its products and services can sometimes make all the difference in their success in a sea of competitors. This became clear to me as a classmate of mine related the story about a T-shirt. The ubiquitous T-shirt, churned out in their millions all over the world, chock full of platitudes, one-liners, political commentary, and cheap graphics. But this T-shirt had the phrase "Board Meeting" on the front with a small stick figure names Jake catching a wave on his surfboard. The phrase "Life is good" was on the back of the shirt near the neck. Why is this story important? The person telling me the story connected with the message of the company that made that shirt. She loved that shirt and what it represented. She connected with the story the company told with its simple message to take it easy and loosen up. The company, Life is good located in Hudson, NH made something that spoke to my classmate...they "got it" for her.

What will engage people in the collective effort that is required to affect the changes we feel are necessary to change our systems to support future generations? What are the questions we need to be asking to challenge the status quo and invite different thinking about problems? How do we energize people to attack something that seems to big and unwieldy? Stories can help. Stories are a way to engage people in a way that does not seek to cast judgment. They can be powerful tools to change a person's perception of an issue, or at least to potentially look at it differently.

What is the sustainability story we are writing and telling?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Interdisciplinary Cooperation...Something New?

The scale of the global challenge that is called climate change seems to be dawning upon our institutions of higher education. I was pleased to see one of my BGI classmates post this recent article from the NYTimes, A Threat So Big, Academics Try Collaboration, highlighting the multi-disciplinary "sustainability" centers popping up around the country over the past five years or so. I was surprised to see that there were so many, though I knew that some of the universities mentioned in the article, Duke, Michigan, Yale etc., had ranked highly in the Beyond Grey Pinstripes survey on business schools that integrated social responsibility in their curriculum at some level. (image from Mills Lawn School)

The cynic in me can only think that there are enough wealthy graduates that are looking to plop their name on some "Center for saving the Planet" at [Insert Name Here] University. But, you know what? If it takes the increasing cultural popularity of greenness and the growing understanding of the risks associated with climate change to get some money thrown at the problem, I suppose we'll take it.

The concept of working across disciplines is something that we should be working on in all capacities. There is a convergence of technology and society happening and a broadening of the gap between the haves and have-nots. Working alone will not solve the complex and global issues we are facing with energy, water, poverty, and environmental concerns. Not too long ago, the rage was the "Technology" MBA, perhaps I am part of the next wave of MBA innovation, the "Sustainable" MBA. I can say one thing , working across silos is something we are working on; social justice runs right alongside economics and accounting. It is fascinating to see the parallels and glaring blond spots disciplines have. Part of our job is to recognize those blind spots, call them out for what they are, and work to close them with the assistance of professionals and advocates that can help fill the gap. It's recognizing the gap from where we are and where we want to be on a organizational level, and working to close that gap.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Naming Rights

I was recently part of a poll to help Mark Albion, he of the career purpose guidance Making a Life and writer of True to Yourself, Leading a Values based Business, name his new book. I must admit that I have not read the book , nor have I met Mark, but we have corresponded a few times and his kind words have helped guide my decisions around pursuing a sustainable MBA at BGI. I appreciate his views and counsel. (image from Turning point Books)

In a nutshell, the new book dives into:

MBA students are chronically risk-averse. Their risk aversion prevents them from seeking and living a life of meaning and purpose. Yet we all want to lead a meaningful life, one that comes from being part of something bigger—a bigger story than one life, one person, one family. In this book, the man BusinessWeek calls "the savior of B-School souls" redefines risk as a business proposition. Albion shows students that the choices they think of as “safe” (e.g. lucrative jobs that fulfill no personal aspirations aside from financial gain, deferring service to others until retirement, etc.) are actually quite risky, since they typically lead us to sell our souls. A consciousness-raising book--rather than a how-to--Albion’s project helps MBA students give themselves “permission” to be who they really want to be. It helps readers develop the will to create a meaningful life.

The first step in this process is for readers to identify their own values. How can you create value, Albion asks, until you know your values? Abion encourages readers to re-think and reassess, but he doesn’t point them in a specific direction. He walks them through the process of asking and answering four core questions: 1) Who Are You? 2) What Do You Want? 3) What Can You Do? 4) Where Are You Going? The goal is to help readers identify and formulate what a meaningful life looks like for them.
This sounds pretty juicy doesn't it? What was very interesting was that attached to the summary was a poll to help choose the title and subtitle of the book. I remember hearing about a book on the Wisdom of Crowds, yet another of the many topics I have yet to learn about (though I would like to) and assume we are the crowd that Mr. Albion is looking to for some guidance. I wonder how my choice will rank?