Turning Insights Into Action: The Story of Two Would-Be Competitors Uniting for System Change

At The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), we are rolling up our sleeves and digging deep into years’ worth of data that represents consumer products worth over $200Bn. It’s no small task, but preliminary analyses are encouraging. Year after year, our data tells the real story of impact at scale across the consumer goods industry as we continue to work towards our mission of using the best sustainability science to help companies make the everyday products we use better and more sustainable. Turning this data into insights involves all-hands-on-deck from TSC staff. Luckily, my position as TSC’s Director of Implementation has created the space necessary for me to evaluate options for turning these insights into action plans.

This ability to focus on action is an exciting and pivotal moment for TSC. A moment that warrants reflection of the blood, sweat, tears, coffee and late night pizza that got us here. My most prominent thought? Pre-competitive. Creating pre-competitive spaces for TSC members to evaluate TSC’s research and help design its tools was, and continues to be, critical to achieving our mission.

While the invaluable potential of “pre-competitive” was on my mind, a serendipitous email pinged my inbox. The email came from Forum for the Future. One could argue that, as TSC delivers on its mission by driving impact through the implementation of our research and tools, our relationship with Forum is a competitive dance. Our recent successful collaboration in a project in the beauty and personal care space showed that we, too, can find ways to accelerate impact by working together pre-competitively.

The Forum email outlined their School of System Change. The purpose of the school is best summarized by its headliner, “In the face of complex challenges, there are not enough people operating with the capacity to shift systems.” It was impossible to ignore the potential and its impeccable timing.

What if two organizations who might normally be thought of as competitors come together to create wider system change? Turning TSC insights into successful action plans requires a systems change design. And while TSC was originally created with systems thinking, I needed a refresher if I was going to be at the helm of designing and delivering strategies for retailers and suppliers.

Earlier this year I began my refresher with four intensive days of learning frameworks and models for systems thinking. I was joined by an impressively diverse and ambitious cohort of professionals coming from the likes of Gap Inc., Target, The Recycling Partnership, The Forbes Fund, and various non-profits. Forum for the Future seamlessly transitioned this cohort of change makers from one system thinking and mapping approach to another. We learned about living wholes and the importance of beginning with the largest manageable living system that shapes a project or program. Another powerful tool taught was the use of strategic systems mapping to develop a deep understanding of the key forces and patterns driving the system’s behavior thereby discovering the most ideal levers to pull while working in a continual improvement and adaptable mode. Integrating futures thinking into project planning and implementation helps to balance working towards a long-term goal and being prepared to navigate unforeseen disruptions. Another tool worth mentioning is the high-low, interest-power stakeholder matrix. So simple, but so powerful.

The value of the frameworks was immediately clear, but the applicability in real-time situations was concerning as I was thinking about TSC’s work. How could I integrate these frameworks into the workstream of our already overworked members and users (and staff!)? Forum assuaged my concerns by emphasizing the importance of internalizing systems thinking and building one’s repertoire of systems change frameworks and models to use in their entirety when possible or, when necessary, in abridged versions.

I’m looking forward to the next few months of working online and doing fieldwork with this cohort and reconvening for another 4 intensive days towards the end of our course. But the value of partnering in this pre-competitive space with Forum is that I don’t have to wait until the end of the course to begin applying these frameworks as TSC works to turn its data insights into action.

I’d like to share a few final thoughts that are now on my white board to assist with my systems thinking internalization. Thinking creates more opportunity than having thoughts. Focusing on potential is more powerful than limiting ourselves to goals. Action plans should regenerate and set ourselves and our stakeholders up for designing rather than reacting. Patterns….look for the patterns.

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