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The big interview: Peter Senge – Co-conspirators in the sustainability revolution

In an exclusive interview, management thinker Peter Senge gives his top tips for better collaboration between companies and NGOs and how the two sides should combine forces to tackle the planet’s problems

With “The Fifth Discipline”, his influential management book of 1990, Peter Senge transformed the way many business leaders approached problem-solving by showing how teams of employees could work better together to achieve desired results for their companies.

In his latest book, “The Necessary Revolution: how individuals and organizations are working together to create a sustainable world”, published in June, Senge looks at how individuals from companies and NGOs are collaborating to tackle the big challenges facing the planet. These he identifies as: rising food prices, agricultural degradation and water shortages; fossil fuel dependency; and, material waste generated by unsustainable levels of consumption.

“The Necessary Revolution” is very similar to “The Fifth Discipline”, Senge says, because each examines how organisations can “expand their boundaries”. He cites as an example the work of Oxfam UK, the anti-poverty campaigners, and Unilever, the consumer goods giant, who between them five years ago founded the Global Sustainable Food Lab to promote sustainable agriculture.

For Senge, Oxfam and Unilever have both looked in detail at the global food system and agreed that it is a “train wreck waiting to happen”. The Food Lab network of projects involve over 50 of the world’s top food and drink companies, including Coca-Cola and Starbucks, and NGOs, such as WWF and Rainforest Alliance. In one project, US retailer Costco is working with farmer co-operatives in Guatemala on sourcing green beans in a more sustainable way.

Partnership challenges

Senge has no illusions about the challenges of making partnerships between companies and NGOs work. “If people are entirely happy then something is wrong,” he says. The two sides’ different approaches cannot be expected to gel immediately, he says. “That would be like assembling a football team with a bunch of people who have all played different sports and you put them on the pitch and say: ‘OK guys, go and win the championship!’” Getting collaboration right requires senior figures in partnering organisations to invest a lot of their time in forging relationships together, something that is much easier said than done.

Firstly, companies must realise that they have to create partnerships to address a major global problem. The collaboration between Coca-Cola and WWF to tackle water shortages came about because Coke managers realised that “being more efficient in the use of water is of little good if there is no water”, Senge observes. “Until you get to the point when people realise that they are part of the problem, all you have is a set of instrumental relationships where people are trying to use each other to get their own goals accomplished,” he says.

Coke has promised to recycle all water used in its operations by 2010 and become “water neutral”. It is working with WWF to fund sustainable management of watersheds and support community water programmes around the world.

Dialogue between partners remains hard to get right, Senge believes. “People use the word [dialogue] very casually. But it’s not casual. It’s hard work. And it requires a commitment of time and a degree of openness that most organisations simply do not have to practice in order to do business as usual.”

What Senge calls the “convening process” of getting the right people around the table is vital to a successful partnership and it takes years not months. Picking senior, board-level directors in an organisation will often backfire, he says, as these people will not involve themselves personally in the running of partnerships, delegating the real work of relationship-building to subordinates.

It takes two or three people to change an organisation, Senge says. Paraphrasing Richard Beckhard, the pioneer of organisational development, he says: “One person trying to change an organisation will get creamed, it doesn’t matter what position they are in. Two people can commiserate. Three people can become a conspiracy.” Patience, perseverance and passion are essential qualities for so-called “change agents”, Senge says. But more important, he argues, is a real affection for the company that they are trying to change.

Get to the core

Corporate reformers must understand what Senge calls a company’s “generative core” – the part of the business that creates value. He cites the example of a toxicologist at Nike whose research five years ago found that the company’s products contained traces of potentially harmful chemicals. She approached Nike’s designers – the brands’ most influential internal players – and started to engage them on ways to create shoes that had zero-toxins or made from biodegradable materials.

Another reformer Senge highlights is the corporate counsel at Costco who, despite having nothing to do with operations, started pointing out systemic problems in the retailer’s food chain. She succeeded, says Senge, by tapping into Costco’s core value of being “a handshake company” that prided itself on having long-term relationships with key suppliers. When the company was made to understand that farming communities all over the world were really its suppliers too, its approach changed.

As Senge explains: “Systems shift when people shift.” As the examples in his book show, companies will shift when committed employees – who understand the idiosyncrasies of their organisations, and are willing to devote time with external partners – step up and make change happen.

“The Necessary Revolution: how individuals and organizations are working together to create a sustainable world” by Peter Senge, Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur and Sara Schley is published in the UK by Nicholas Brealey Publishing (June 2008; £16.99; hardback; 432 pages).

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