What I learned from the Harvard Exec Education in Sustainability Leadership Program

[Read my Privilege Statement]

In November of last year, I had the privilege of attending Haaaahhhvad to get an Executive Education in Sustainability Leadership.

They are now taking applications for their next class in October, so I thought I’d share a bit about what I learned and the impact it had on me.

Since this program is sponsored by the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, I was expecting a bigger focus on the intersection of climate and health. It turned out to be industry-agnostic, which actually gave me hope! If utility, luxury hotel, and car racing companies could make meaningful climate commitments, why couldn’t the private healthcare sector?

The most valuable aspect of the program was the opportunity to gather for a full week with leaders who care about the environment and fighting climate change — the majority of whom were doing so in really challenging environments. Although the focus was sustainability, the course content focused on transformational change management more broadly. Everyone in the room not only believed they could make a positive change, but they also had a proven track record of doing so.

Before we get too far, it may be helpful to become familiar with some key terms.

And now for what we learned:

Figure adapted from Leith sharp is licensed for sharing and adapting under Creative Commons CC BY SA 4.0

After some ice-breaking exercises, we took a moment to acknowledge the reality of most transformational efforts: they are not linear and you rarely hear the real story.

In order to figure out how to navigate change management and innovation, you need to be honest about the ups and downs, the holdups, and the failures.

One way to do this is to map past efforts. Document each step you took, every approval, denial, leadership change, and all the holdups.

Can you spot any patterns of where friction occurs? Have your teammates had similar experiences?

Most processes don’t take into account these realities and therefore set unreasonable expectations.

Figure adapted from Leith sharp is licensed for sharing and adapting under Creative Commons CC BY SA 4.0

When these ups and downs occur, it’s usually a sign to move between the hierarchical and adaptive operating systems (OS).

When dealing with processes, layered approvals, and decision-makers, you are likely engaging the hierarchical OS.

When you brainstorm, get feedback, and workshop with mentors and peers to get a feel for whether you’re on the right track, you’re in the adaptive OS.

Figure adapted from Leith sharp is licensed for sharing and adapting under Creative Commons CC BY SA 4.0

All organizations have both hierarchical and adaptive systems. Identify stakeholders in both systems and oscillate between the two depending on the stage of the effort.

By anticipating when you need to engage each system, you can reduce the number of ups and downs — or at least be ready for them.

In my work, I usually have to informally float ideas, find champions, build coalitions, and do a ton of research before formally presenting or pitching a project. When a project is put on hold by leadership, I take the opportunity to workshop the idea informally. If I know a key stakeholder will be leaving the project or organization, I have to find new champions before the transition to ensure continuity.

One of my favorite quotes is, “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” I find it inspirational because it suggests that outcomes aren’t accidental; you can change outcomes by changing a design flaw or building a new system.

It can be overwhelming to focus on solving a problem, and realize it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s frustrating to work on a solution and realize that it will have unintended negative impacts on another team.

It’s important to recognize the context in which problems exist and in which you’ll be creating solutions.

Systems mapping is an excellent tool to visualize all of the activities, stakeholders, their relationships, interdependencies, positive and negative feedback loops, and levers.

By engaging in this exercise, you can determine where your partners are and where your detractors might be — who you will need to engage and in which OS. You can anticipate dependencies and unintended consequences. You can start to create an action plan that attacks the root of a problem rather than a symptom.

The next module was probably the most inspiring and optimistic. The general message from Biomimicry 3.8: the answers are in nature, we just need to find them. From the natural adhesive mussels create to stick to rocks despite violent waves to the wood-wide web (the OG internet), many innovations are inspired by, and mimic, naturally occurring systems in nature. These systems have been developed over millions of years, are extremely resilient, and are regenerative rather than extractive.

Slide © Biomimicry 3.8

Biomimicry is the processes of learning from and then emulating nature’s forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable designs. Many of the applications have been in physical products like buildings and medical devices. I’m excited to learn more about social systems, relationships, and health.

So, what did I do with this info and these tools?

First and foremost, it was helpful to define adaptive and hierarchical networks and demonstrate the need to engage both. It was validating to gain terminology for something that I was already doing and it encouraged me to get more intentional about the process.

I found the forensic mapping exercises to be especially useful. At the time, I was working in an innovation group and realized that we had a process that didn’t accommodate slowdowns due to leadership changes, even though they happened all the dang time! By mapping out past efforts, we could actually demonstrate this pattern and the need to plan for it.

I was excited to see Biomimicry featured prominently and to learn about well-known companies learning from nature. I had already practiced systems thinking and mapping before the course but felt inspired to get my hands dirty to take my understanding to the next level. (Since January, I’ve studied trees and have been volunteering at farms in order to learn more from nature, and I’ll be taking a Permaculture Design Course to further my education.) My goals are to learn about the history of land stewardship in the Bay Area, to learn practical skills I can apply in everyday life, and to gain inspiration for new approaches and solutions in my work.

Most helpful were the side conversations with my fellow students, who had pro tips, best practices, and lessons-learned galore.

When I started the course I saw myself as an internal activist and thought that I would need to convince people or protest in order to push change.

A fellow student challenged me: “Start with the assumption that people want to do the right thing. Guide them in doing the right thing.”

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