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Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Necessary Revolution: How individuals and organizations are working together to create a sustainable world, by Peter Senge, et al.

Don’t be fooled by the title. This isn’t another one of those ‘end of the world’ books on the need to avert climate-change, protect the environment, or fight the effects of peak oil.

The Necessary Revolution is about re-learning how to work together. It is about collaboration over competition, stewardship over leadership, knowledge sharing over information hoarding, empowering the local over coercing its compliance. Senge has used sustainability as a context for this frontal assault on our engrained leadership and management practices that stem from industrial age world views. He refers to the ‘Industrial Age Bubble’ that is fuelled by cheap energy and over abundant financial capital and that is increasing disconnected from Nature, the real world in which we truly live.

I suspect, on the other hand, that one could remove the word ‘sustainable’ and substitute ‘prosperous’, ‘healthy’, ‘peaceful’, or ‘happy’ and still produce essentially the same book, although it would arguably lack some of the energy currently associated with sustainability. The thing is that there are many chronic and complex social problems that have been stymied by our industrial age management practices that demand a revolution, or more appropriately an evolution, in the way human beings cooperate towards their common good.

Our commitment to the Bubble has weakened our resolve to see these problems as anything other than collateral damage on our way to the ‘good life’ and not as the accumulating results of the choices we make daily. Senge demonstrates this in the simulation results obtained from various groups attempting to understand their responses to a shared resource like the fishery. Almost invariably the resource was depleted and the industry died. We’ve forgotten how to cooperate.

Yet in choosing to frame The Necessary Revolution in terms of sustainability, Senge and his co-authors have demonstrated that the needed leadership and management changes can work and are working today -- even in this most contentious and contested field. They show that sustainability, climate change, peak oil are in fact becoming drivers of organizational strategy and renewal in an already august group of companies. And that those drivers demand a different approach.

They have drawn on rich assortment of case stories from Alcoa, Coke, Nike, the US Green Business Council (developers of the new LEED standards), Unilever, Costco, Xerox, BP, Wal-Mart, BMW, Seventh Generation, and many others to show that not only are these new collaborative practices being applied, but they are being done so as core innovative practices to position these companies for new products, new processes and entirely new markets. Senge quotes the dramatically successful USGBC to say that “how we make our decisions is as important as the decisions themselves”. And because increasingly no one organization or person can be said to be in charge, those decisions are being made collaboratively.

At 400 pages the book is moderately long, but over 2/3 of it is focused on how to make those collective decisions that bridge not only departments in a single organization, but also different companies, NGOs, governments -- even low level suppliers in different countries. The book is a treasure trove of ideas and experiences that can be added to anyone’s tool box and brought out as needed in a process of heuristic learning. I highly recommend it.


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