Holonomics: the antidote to reductionism?

Come across a word like ‘holonomics’ (evocative as it is of systems thinking) and one might be forgiven for feeling a slight sense of scepticism. Fortunately, Simon and Maria Robinson, authors of Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, are very quick to dispel any whiff of ‘emperor’s new clothes’ surrounding their ideas. Holonomic thinking is not a “dogmatic annunciation” of a new methodology or toolkit, but rather a much more subtle and nuanced quest to expand our consciousness.

If all that sounds a tad esoteric, it really isn’t. It’s massively important, because our dominant mode of conceptualising the relationship between ‘parts’ and ‘wholes’ is broken – no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Mainstream management and organizational approaches remain largely rooted in the industrial age, where reductionism made perfect sense. Physical tasks could be split into relatively independent parts, each optimised through the division of labour, and ‘reconstituted’ by means of workflow systems. Relationships are framed by the metaphor of ‘business as mechanism’ – a system of discrete parts that fit together as a whole, based on sequential processes and a clear, linear understanding of cause and effect.

Of course there’s only one problem with that. It just isn’t the world we live in any more.

So, what’s the alternative?

Simply put, it’s to view businesses as organisms, not mechanisms – as complex, living, dynamic systems, rather than fixed hierarchical structures. Remove part of a machine and it ceases to function. Take a cutting from a plant, however, and you can grow an entire new plant. As Simon and Maria explain, “There is something fundamentally different about the organization of a plant, whereby the whole is contained within the parts.”

While they certainly aren’t the first (and won’t be the last) to posit the importance of this metaphorical shift, what’s different about holonomics is the ‘both/and’ nature of its expression. The essence of holonomic thinking is to assert neither the primacy of parts over wholes (as per the industrial age paradigm above), nor to do the opposite (a common trap of systems thinking). Rather, in an Opposable Mind sort of way, it’s to hold both the parts and whole in mind at the same time – each part as an authentic expression of the whole, and the whole as an authentic expression of the belonging together of all the parts (no shoe-horns required!).

That the optimum word in all of this should be ‘authentic’ – and that the quality of authenticity becomes ‘known’ through feeling and intuition as much as sensing and thinking – is something that should harbour a natural appeal for anyone making a living in the world of brand and design.

The beauty of the book (at least from my experience of reading it) is that it provides the scientific and philosophical underpinnings for what you always felt to be true, but perhaps couldn’t put your finger on why.

For example, if you want to truly understand what it means to encounter an authentic whole, then you’d be wise to familiarise yourself with phenomenology (the focal point of Part One of the book). Unlike Cartesian philosophy, which rejects the subjective perception of reality as the source of untruth, phenomenology embraces it as inherent to understanding the totality of ‘lived experience’. Of course, this ties in to the well-established notion that brands must speak to our emotions, but it goes much further than that. It illuminates why a truly authentic brand is not some form of artificial construct – a ‘superimposed’ sum of the parts – but rather it is something that ‘comes into being’ through the manner in which we perceive and experience its DNA in each and every part. (As I say In my own book, that’s why literally everything you say and everything you do has the power either to enhance or erode it.)

Likewise, if you want to understand how your organisation really functions (as opposed to how you think it should)  – or if you’re one of those people who still harbours the notion that the environment (biosphere) is a sub-system of the economy (business) – then Part Two of the book is for you. Here, Simon and Maria take us on a guided tour of chaos theory, systems thinking and complexity science, gently nudging us towards the realisation of the nested interdependences between business, society and the environment.

Finally, Part Three seeks to make all this good theoretical stuff more tangible by illustrating evidence of holonomic thinking in practice – from the ‘chaordic’ and ‘latticed’ organisational structures at Visa and Gore Associates to the ‘dynamic way of seeing’ embodied in Toyota’s production system (including an interesting perspective on what caused Toyota to drop the ball a few years back).

If any of that sounds like your cup of tea, then you can take a proper peek inside the book here. While you’re at it, maybe take a look at Marty Neumeier’s Metaskills too – a slightly different, but equally compelling and highly readable guide to developing a ‘higher level of knowing’.

Sustainability-inspired disruption: LYF Shoes

Traditional shoe-making is a nasty business, explains a video from LYF Shoes.

Cheap raw materials, exploitation of foreign labour, toxic adhesives and mega-heat ovens used in assembly, wasteful packaging, long-distance shipping and distribution… That’s a very long list of negative effects for the making and use of a product that, in the vast majority of cases, is ultimately destined for landfill.

Of course, all of this makes it an industry ripe for disruptive innovation. There has to be a better way, right?

Well, LYF Shoes (Love Your Fit. Love Your Fashion. Love Your Footprint.) looks like they may have found it – not just a product with a sustainable twist (a la Oat Shoes), mind you, but an entire sustainable system of design, production, distribution and consumption. A new and disruptively innovative business model.

Ready for the whistle-stop tour? Here are some of the headlines, viewed through the lens of the fundamental principles of design for sustainability, as described in my book

Clever!

Material inputs: How might you redesign products and processes to reduce the amount and types of materials used? Are those materials recyclable, so that waste is no longer waste, but the food for another process? Could your raw materials come from someone else’s waste (or your waste become someone else’s raw material)?

LYF shoes are designed from the ground up to use 100% recyclable materials – from the recycled rubber and plastics in the sole and ‘performance plate’, to the cork insoles (the cork coming from recycled wine bottles), to the all-natural uppers. What’s more, those uppers are precision-cut and printed on-demand, using an all-dry digital printing process, so as to minimize ink and material waste.

Very clever!

Modularity and longevity: What is the expected life span of your product? How easily can it be repaired, updated or put to alternative use? How easy is it to dissemble the product into its component parts to aid that repurposing/updating/re-use?

LYF shoes are specifically designed for ease of assembly and disassembly – five component parts that fit together entirely without glue. That makes it a doddle, either to extend the life of the shoe by replacing a single worn component (no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater) or, if the shoe has given up the ghost completely, to return it to source to be recycled and turned into a new shoe. 

Cleverer still!

Closing the loop: How can you make use of reverse logistics to reclaim discarded outputs and turn them into new inputs? How close are the points of production and consumption? Can these distances be shortened to further increase the efficiency of your value cycle?

Here’s where it gets cleverer still. The simplicity of design and assembly – no glue, no ovens, no screen printing – enables a decentralized model of production and distribution. It paves the way for local microenterprises to spring up to fulfil just about every part of the value cycle – whether that’s Original Equipment Manufacture (OEM – i.e. manufacture of the component parts) or the job of assembly and disassembly at retail.

What’s more, this model slashes the costs and impacts of distribution and packaging by synchronising the points of production and consumption. And with customers incentivised to return end-of-life shoes, by virtue of a buy-back scheme (those shoes easily disassembled at the point of return and their components sent back to OEMs for remanufacture), the LYF model creates a ‘closed loop’ at a local level.

Cleverest of the lot!

Imagine you had absolutely no knowledge of all this ‘under the hood’ stuff. Instead, just pause and reflect on the entirely different customer experience it creates:

  1. You get to design your own shoes – before they’re made! Initially choosing from a range of styles and textile patterns, as the business grows you’ll eventually be able to upload your own print for a truly individual fashion statement. And you get to watch those shoes being made – at the point of retail, in front of your very eyes, in a matter of minutes.
  2. The shoes you receive won’t only be more to your taste in fashion, they’ll be functionally superior too – custom fit, more comfortable (and only getting more comfortable with every subsequent purchase, as an embedded digital capture device tracks biomechanics and builds a user profile that can be used to refine the design).
  3. And if, for whatever reason, those shoes just aren’t doing it for you any more – hey, no problem! Simply return to the store and either have them ‘upgraded’, or trade them in for a new pair, safe in the knowledge that every ounce of materials will go towards make another pair of shoes for someone else.

Seriously, what’s not to love? And if this sort of business model innovation floats your boat as much as it does mine, don’t be shy – go forth and shout about it! Here’s a wee video worth sharing as an introduction to/summary of the LYF story:

The Ryder Cup: It’s about people, Phil, not process

Wow. That American press conference after the Ryder Cup was some car crash, wasn’t it?!

While the first words off every European’s lips were to praise Paul McGinley to the hilt for his exemplary captaincy, Phil Mickelson chose instead to use his to plunge a knife right between Tom Watson’s shoulder blades – a decision that throws the essential and enduring difference between the two teams into sharpest possible relief.

Whereas past US dominance in the tournament was always based on having the world’s best individual players, Europe’s more recent dominance (that’s now 8 victories in the last 10 Ryder Cups) is undoubtedly the result of having the best team dynamic.

Whereas US players (most notably Tiger Woods and Mickelson himself) have typically performed well below par in Ryder Cups, the self same setting seems to encourage the Europeans to play beyond themselves. In stark contrast to Woods in past tournaments, Rory McIlroy looked every inch the world’s best golfer in spanking Ricky Fowler 5&4 and, where Ian Poulter left off in Medinah, Justin Rose picked up at Gleneagles, seemingly reserving the best golf of their lives for this event.

Why is that?

Not for the first time, stories of McGinley’s captaincy remind me of approaches ripped from the playbook of one of the world’s great motivators and man managers – legendary British Lions coach, Sir Ian McGeechan, whose example every Lions coach since has borrowed from heavily.

For example, for Fergie’s team talk with the European team, read wheeling out Lions legend, Willie John McBride, to deliver a stirring speech and hand players their test jerseys. For all the motivational words and imagery in the European team room, read the names of past Lions legends on a plaque above every peg in the dressing room – reminding you of the amazing players who’ve worn that jersey before you, and whose legacy you’re now part of continuing.

Most of all, I’m reminded of McGeechan’s words about Jason Leonard – a man who, despite a world record 114 international caps as a forward, never started a test match for the British Lions. McGeechan spoke of the unwavering support Leonard gave to Paul Wallace – the man who took to the field in his jersey in that epic 1997 series against South Africa. That, said McGeechan, epitomises what it means to be a Lion and is what makes Leonard one of the all-time greats.

So what, you may ask?

This sort of stuff means everything to exceptional team performance, especially in a sporting setting. It taps into deep emotions. It says that what we’re here to do is bigger than you, me and this particular moment in history. It breeds that all-for-one, never-say-die commitment to the cause. It means that when teammates exchange a glance, what that glance says is ‘I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you down’.

In that context, every bit as surprising and significant as the setting of Mickelson’s implicit attack on Watson was the substantive point of his criticism – that the US’ recent failures can be attributed to abandoning the ‘pod’ system put in place by their last successful Ryder Cup captain, Paul Azinger, whereby the team of 12 were split into three groups of 4 who bonded over practice and from whom each player pairing was drawn.

An eminently effective formula this may have proven but, for me, Mickelson’s emphasis on having been “invested in [that] process” – his specific focus on reviving that particular system, rather than the recreating (by whatever means) the feeling of ‘togetherness’ it generated – is to entirely miss the point. (In fact, if you want to fully appreciate the difference between strategy and tactics, that’s a perfect example right there.)

Last time I checked, a process had never holed a clutch putt for a vital half point on the 18th green. It wasn’t a process that stiffed a wedge to within 2 or 3 feet to secure the concession that won this year’s trophy. It was a person. And until the US team figures that out – investing in the broader outcome of team togetherness, rather than arguing the toss over specific methodologies for achieving it – they may continue to find themselves on the wrong end of a drubbing.

On speech writing: Salmond shows true colours?

Beware the significance of every single word you write…

Listening to various leaders, in the wake of Scotland’s verdict in the independence referendum this morning, I couldn’t help but latch onto the very careful and deliberate insertion of the phrase “at this stage” in Alex Salmond’s concession speech – i.e. Scots have chosen not to separate from the rest of the UK “at this stage”.

Clearly he couldn’t help himself and you can’t help but think about what that reveals about the man.

Those three small – and apparently innocuous – words rather undermine all his other rhetoric about taking the ‘No’ vote on the chin and focusing whole-heartedly now on working “constructively in the best interests of Scotland and the rest of the UK.”

At best, the use of such a qualifying phrase makes him sound like a sore loser; at worst completely disingenuous (note also how his earlier assertion that the referendum would settle the independence issue for a “lifetime” has now been downgraded to a “generation”).

Alex, I know you don’t have kids or grandkids, but it’s time to go rent yourself a copy of ‘Frozen’ and sing along with Elsa. C’mon, you know the words…

“Let it go! Let it GO-OOOO!”

Yet more evidence that sustainability pays

For anyone who’s ever questioned the business value of sustainability, a new study published by Oxford University and Arabesque Partners (as reported in Forbes on Monday) should make for thought-provoking reading…

How sustainability drives financial outperformance

‘From the Stockholder to the Stakeholder’ (a full copy of which can be downloaded from Arabesque’s website) is a meta-study of more than 190 academic papers, industry reports, newspaper articles and books, and it provides some of the strongest evidence yet of the positive correlation between good sustainability practices and corporate performance. For example:

  • 90% of studies show that sound ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) standards lower the cost of capital
  • 88% show that they also result in better operational performance
  • 80% indicate that stock price performance is positively influenced by good sustainability practices

Short-termism is the enemy

The numbers above offer empirical proof of what most of us already know in our gut – that doing good is great for business – and their importance can’t be understated, especially in the context of four more very telling statistics quoted in the report:

  • 80% of CEOs view sustainability as a means to gain competitive advantages relative to competitors, and yet…
  • Only 33% of them think that business is making sufficient efforts to address global sustainability challenges; this is at least in part because…
  • 79% of them feel under pressure to deliver financial results in two years or less, and…
  • 86% say this is in contrast to their innate convictions

In other words, the vast majority of CEOs want to make business decisions over a longer time horizon and integrate sustainability more fully into their businesses, but feel hamstrung by markets’ narrow focus on maximizing short-term shareholder returns (an insight, by the way, that casts a very interesting light on Unilever’s abandonment of earnings guidance and quarterly reporting).

Sustainable growth: changing the frame

Therein (as the Bard once wrote) lies the rub and, as a growing number of influential business leaders are arguing with considerable passion and conviction (notably the likes of Richard Branson, Paul Polman and Arianna Huffington, under the auspices of The B Team), it’s precisely this narrow definition of value that needs to change if business is to succeed in building a better working world.

  • From share value to shared value – leaders make it their business to be a force for good in the world, not just through philanthropy, but by delivering core products and services that tangibly contribute to the wellbeing of people and communities. They do so on the understanding that businesses with ideals of improving lives at their core are substantially outperforming the general market (by 120% according to Havas Media’s Meaningful Brand Index).
  • From next quarter to next generation – what it means to be a successful business is judged by the capacity to create and sustain value over the long-term, including innovating new business models that decouple growth from environmental degradation. This is on the understanding that, among other things, there’s an estimated US$1tn in economic value to be unlocked by transition to a circular economy.
  • From financial accounting to true accounting – businesses illustrate their capacity to create value in a way that reflects the commercial, social and environmental context within which they operate, i.e. fully accounting for their impact on (and stewardship of) not only financial but also human, social and natural capital. They do so on the understanding that a business gets the investors it deserves and that, if they want to attract long-term investors, then they need to offer a more systemic view in order to build trust and confidence in their ability to create and sustain value over the long-term.

Purposeful. Enduring. Real. These are the watchwords that, for me, define sustainable growth.

Are people tiring of ‘sustainability’ (and, if so, what should we do about it)?

Some time ago, I received a tentative approach from Kogan Page about turning my 55-minute guide to building sustainable brands into a more substantive tome. A few weeks of enthusiastic discussion was sadly brought to a halt, though, when the verdict came down from up on high that the ‘S word’ doesn’t sell.

Earlier this week, I stumbled across a blog post citing architect, Michael Pawlyn, who apparently gives some fantastic talks on biomimicry (using design principles evident in the natural world as inspiration for innovation). In these talks he points out that, if someone asked you how your marriage was going, and you answered that it was ‘sustainable’, that would tend to suggest something missing from the relationship!

It’s a fair point and it highlights a very real problem…

As a father, the son of designer parents, and a self-styled purpose-driven strategist, my idealistic attachment to an exciting future – one that offers an elegantly, ecologically and economically enjoyed existence for us all – is so part of my being that I have to consciously remind myself that that’s not where most people live.

In their worlds, were you to play a game of word association, ‘sustainability’ would most likely spark the word ‘green’ (narrowly framing sustainability in the context of environmental protection), rather than ‘longevity’ (opening up a much richer and broader narrative around our capacity to survive and thrive over generations).

Whereas the former is essentially pessimistic and suggestive of limits on business as usual, the latter is inherently optimistic, challenging us to re-envision constraints as an opportunity to design something better, more lasting and truly fulfilling – in balance with (not opposition to) the needs of wider society and the world’s natural systems.

For my money, it’s the absence of optimism and innovation from most people’s mental model of sustainability that saddles the word with its (undeserved) reputation for dullness and moral rectitude.

So what should we do about it? Well, three options spring to mind…

  1. Make a conscious effort to reframe sustainability in our own minds. One of the great weaknesses of the term (its context specificity and openness to interpretation) is simultaneously its biggest asset. As Humpty said in Through the Looking Glass, “A word means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less,” and we can choose how to define it – less about soft moral principles and more about hard business logic; less about peripheral philanthropy and more about core strategy and culture; less about risk and reputation management and more about innovation and value creation.
  2. Talk less about sustainability in the abstract and instead focus on being clear about specific outcomes and practical results. For example, everyone wants lower their energy bills and an architect can talk to clients about how adopting Passivhaus planning tools can help them to accurately predict (and reduce) their energy consumption.
  3. Abandon ‘sustainability’ altogether and call it something else. Here, unfortunately, I run out of ideas. Much like the word ‘brand’, if ‘sustainability’ were stripped from my lexicon, I’d be at a total loss as to what to replace it with.

If anyone out there has any suggestions, I’d be genuinely interested to hear them!

Generation Jobless: How do you make a dent on youth unemployment?

Add together not only those officially classed as ‘unemployed’, but also those who have simply given up looking for work and those who are part of the ‘working poor’ (i.e. earning less than $2/day), and the number of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 without productive employment apparently reaches an eye-watering 600 million.

That’s one in two of the total global population of 15-24 year olds. If they were citizens of a country, it would be the third most populous in the world, behind only China and India.

Gross oversimplification though it is (we are, after all, talking about the product of a major collision of demographics and global economic recession), my inner MBA can’t resist the temptation to categorise possible interventions using the time-honoured 2×2 matrix…

tackling youth unemployment 2x2

Boxes 1 and 2

Looking through the lens of sustaining innovation (improvements within the current paradigm), and seeing youth employment as predominantly a supply-side problem (an insufficiency of appropriate skills), would suggest interventions to improve young people’s readiness for the world of work.

That might include anything and everything from improving access to a quality education for people from disadvantaged backgrounds (creating equity of opportunity), to greater availability of internships and apprenticeships (providing more practical work experience), to better careers advice and guidance on things like CV writing and interview technique (improving chances of converting opportunities).

[A brief aside: equity of opportunity and richer work experience are where initiatives like the Akasa Young Pioneers program – which also happens to be linked to sustainable development – are to be wholeheartedly welcomed and supported, IMHO.]

Viewed as predominantly a demand-side problem (an insufficiency of appropriate jobs) might direct one towards equipping young people with the requisite skills and knowledge to consider setting up their own business, as an alternative to the ‘traditional’ corporate career path.

Indeed, development of a more entrepreneurial mindset might well be a bridge between supply and demand-side views of the problem. As EY Chairman and CEO, Mark Weinberger, alluded to in a recent piece for Forbes, studies suggest that the sorts of skills and behaviours typified by entrepreneurs – e.g. initiative and self-direction, flexibility and adaptability, communication and collaboration, and critical thinking and problem solving – are precisely those that employers currently deem most lacking among millennials.

All of the above are definitely areas where, as Mark says, business can and should be looking to lead and make a tangible contribution. That said…

Boxes 3 and 4

I can’t shake the feeling that the biggest inroads will only be made with systemic change – tackling profound questions like ‘Are we even teaching our kids the right stuff in the first place?’ and ‘Do our tax and economic policies really incentivise job creation?’

Admittedly I’m no expert, but I’ve unsurprisingly found myself nodding in vigorous agreement with a couple of passages that I’d like to share with you, the first of which comes from Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age – yet another outstanding and profoundly thought-provoking book from the brilliant Marty Neumeier (@MARTYneumeier):

“With the exception of language and math basics, the subjects we now teach at school are the wrong subjects. The right subjects – the ones that will matter in the 21st century – are metaskills. Students today should be learning social intelligence, systemic logic, creative thinking, how to make things, how to learn. What we now think of as subjects – sociology, trigonometry, physics, art, psychology and scores of others – should become ‘drill-downs’ from these metaskills – specific disciplines, designed to explore the higher order subjects…

Today we find ourselves caught between two paradigms – the linear, reductionist past and the spiraling, mutli-valent future. The old world turned on the axis of knowledge and material goods. The new one will turn on the axis of creativity and social responsibility. To cross the gap we’ll need a generation of thinkers and makers who can reframe problems and design surprising, elegant solutions. We’ll need fearless, self-directed learners who embrace adventure. We’ll need teachers, mentors and leaders who understand that mind shaping is world shaping – who give learners the tools they’ll need to continually reinvent their minds in response to future challenges.”

The second passage comes from Walter Stahel, founder director of The Product-Life Institute, in a contribution to A New Dynamic: Effective Business in a Circular Economy, published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

“Sustainable taxation should reward desired developments and discourage unwanted effects of activities. In a sustainable economy, taxes on renewable resources, including work – human labour – are counterproductive and should be abandoned. The resulting loss of state revenue could be compensated by taxing the consumption of non-renewable resources in the form of materials and energies, and of undesired wastes and emissions. Such a shift in taxation would reward a circular economy with its low-carbon and low-resource solutions.”

Having always felt that the tax system would provide a far more effective tool to incentivise the right behaviours than the blunt instrument of regulation, that makes intuitive sense to me. What do you think?