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Rethinking our thinking for a sustainable future

Sep 12, 2022

Estoril Kanina Resized

Kanina Blanchard teaching at the Donald K. Johnson Centre in Toronto

Everything we do is part of a larger system, but we typically don’t think about things this way, says Darren Meister, an expert in design thinking and Ivey’s Associate Dean of Faculty Development.

That sentiment was an over-arching theme at a recent day-long workshop, Rethinking our Thinking for a Sustainable Future, at Ivey’s Donald K. Johnson Centre in Toronto. In conjunction with the global Estoril Conferences, Meister, and Ivey faculty Kanina Blanchard and Jury Gualandris, led and challenged participants to understand how traditional ways of thinking may impede progress toward a more sustainable future.

Utilizing Ivey’s experiential learning approach, faculty led the interactive session through a number of hands-on activities, including a case discussion on modernizing sustainable agricultural practices, group art projects to demonstrate barriers to change, and a rapid innovation exercise to model system improvement. All combined together, the programming sought to stretch one’s thinking, become familiar with tools to effect system-level change, and develop practical ideas that could be brought back to organizations and communities.

A case for sustainable farming

Gualandris led the day with a lively case discussion featuring a small U.S.-based farm called Polyface, which prides itself on sustainable and circular agricultural practices. The case emphasizes the purposeful choices made by the owners to effectively grow multiple animals and reuse their waste (aka "polyculture") throughout all facets of the farming process. This, in turn, leads to a more sustainable, and efficient use of resources when compared to larger, traditional, industrial farms.

“They can say waste is a valuable resource in the wrong place at the wrong time. I just need to put it in the right place at the right time,” said Gualandris.

The Polyface case demonstrates there are sustainable systems, which can collaboratively create value, but most importantly, the right mindset is critical.

“We shouldn’t feel overwhelmed with the complexity of the systems because one of the key leverage points to build these systems is the mindset,” said Gualandris. “If we can be explicit about a new mindset and a new principle we will pursue, then things will happen.”

Expressing barriers through art

While the Polyface case created an external way of making connections so people can think differently, Blanchard led a novel and creative small-group exercise to visualize how you feel about creating change in an organization, and ultimately, what gets in the way.

“Usually what holds us back are barriers,” said Blanchard. “And those barriers are usually embedded in our emotions, fears, and concerns. So having them draw their barriers, allows us to connect with them.”

Blanchard said artwork helps us communicate with others as well.

“So when you ask others, ‘How do you feel?,’ and ask them a question and ask them to draw it, it allows it to come out of themselves, and then be able to share it and talk about it with others,” she said. “In adult learning so much of it happens through the sharing of experience. So art is a way to encourage sharing that deepens not only one’s understanding of self, but also being able to build connections with others.”

System-level understanding

In the final interactive session, Meister sought to give a greater understanding of the systems and connections that exist within organizations and society. His presentation on thinking about systems acknowledges that the second you start a system, it will inevitably at some point fail. Key takeaways include:

  • A system does exactly what it is designed to do;
  • Systems become more complex over time;
  • System failure becomes more likely as systems become more complex; and,
  • Simplicity in a system is our friend. It makes feedback, outcomes, and unexpected results more obvious.

And while systems change isn’t easy, Meister said the approach is key.

“Don’t think about how you can make things more complex, but how you can make things simpler,” he said.

In small groups, Meister then orchestrated a rapid innovation exercise focused on ways we can create more fruitful conditions for innovative systems change, particularly as it affects sustainability.

Reflecting on rethinking

Working within a company that is focused on leading energy transition, Matt Morrish, EMBA ’22, reflects a lot about organizational change. Morrish said the Rethinking our Thinking event helped to frame our collective need to focus on sustainable change.

“In our MBA program, we really focused on systems change and what that looks like. I think the fundamental theme throughout today was, in order to get all of your stakeholders on board, you need to be able to look at systems change, not as an overarching top-down approach, but as a vibration of nodes in an effort to drive systems change with consistent leadership, great communication, and steadfast belief in your purpose,” he said.

“One of the themes that was touched on today was the idea of community engagement, and ultimately, if you want more people involved, you need to have both the business community, the academic community, and the leadership community working in concert to drive that systems change because ultimately it’s not just one person acting independently, but everyone working collectively.”
Matt Morrish, EMBA '22