Professor Gareth Morgan’s insights into sustainable change

Professor Gareth Morgan was the key note speaker at the celebration of 15 years of the Consulting and Coaching for Change progamme, jointly run by Said Business School, University of Oxford, and HEC Paris.  Now part of the faculty of the programme, his book, Images of Organization, was required reading for all cohorts.  I was part of cohort 2!

Gareth picked up the topic of achieving sustainability through large scale change, which followed on from work done in the morning.  He reminded us of the 15% principle – how to tackle the 15% of things that are most important to strategy and which can be done – not the 85% of ideas that can’t be carried through.  We discussed key themes from complexity science and “Field” theory.  His point was that there is no such thing as a discrete, autonomous actor, entity or organisation.  If we are to tackle big issues such as the changing climate, stakeholders with their “fields” of experience and relationships need to be brought together at a local level to solve problems that underlie the big environmental issues.  They will be able to impact their local system.

At the same time, the underpinning “logic of action” needs to be challenged.  The logic of action of capitalism has aspects that work against sustainability, such as individualism, externalisation and efficiency.  However, it also has aspects that can work for sustainability, such as key metrics (such as the triple bottom line or Martin’s scorecard), class actions and education, which can change beliefs.  Gareth went on to say that if this is going to work, he advocates the use of “min specs”.  These are principles that work in complex situations, that speed up change.  These are more than simple rules and need some interpretation but hold good and are easy to remember.  We use similar rules for our work – e.g.

  • get ownership not buy in,
  • find out how as well as what,
  • enable people to learn from each other,
  • build equal-to-equal relationships.

Gareth’s final point was that major institutions are so locked into entrenched fields of relationships that only major shared crises will prompt action, across the system.  It was pointed out that following the energy crisis in Japan that followed the Fukushima disaster, the threat of a brown-out was sufficient to create prompt local action to reduce energy consumption without the need for rules.  No brown out was experienced.

This kind of action is both prompt, and also inexpensive – people used their own, hidden, knowledge and resources.  This is exactly what is released in Hidden Insights projects.

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