We know that catalysing systemic change is essential to the transformation of society to tackle the climate and nature crises. The Three Horizons model illustrates how the old, failing system needs to be replaced with a system that reflects the reality that we are part of nature, and that draws out and builds on the best in human nature. The Ripples and Cascades model helps us work out where in that landscape we can be most effective.
The S-shaped curves in Three Horizons may look similar to the graphs from marketing that we’ve all seen. Graphs that show the successful adoption of a new product or technology by innovators, early adopters, main-streamers and so on. While this kind of incremental uptake and spread of new behaviours and technologies is essential to the transformation the world needs, it’s only part of the picture.
Sustainability leadership means recognising the importance of two quite different types of change that are essential to transform society and the economy in the ways that we and the world needs:
Incremental change where attitudes, behaviours and technical innovations spread across society like ripples spreading out from a stone dropped in a lake;
System change where new policies, procedures and laws catalyse systemic change, creating rapid shifts in society and the economy, so that new ways of doing things cascade across society, like a river cutting a new channel after a flood.
Humans are social animals. Each of us belongs to various groups: families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, peer groups and so on. These groups are part of wider societies across the world. And all of us are part of the environment, including the human-made environment of infrastructure and technology.
We can think of four nested ovals: self, group, society and environment. Of course, there are over 7 billion ‘selves’, and we are each members of multiple, overlapping groups, and our societies overlap and interconnect globally. But let’s keep it simple for now.
Incremental change happens when someone innovates – they come up with a new idea and start doing things differently. If it’s taken up by others around them, the new way of doing things will spread through their group, and potentially to other groups and across society.
The things-done-differently include behaviours (e.g. adopting mobile phones, fashion, home energy conservation); attitudes (e.g. openness to LGBT+ rights, vaccine denial, climate scepticism), and beliefs (e.g. universal human rights, religion).
There are many factors that will influence the speed and extent to which any innovation spreads (or not) beyond the originator, into their group and beyond – potentially becoming mainstream in society. But for now, the point is that in the right circumstances some innovations can do so – spreading like ripples.
The ripple effect comes from our direct influence on other people, most likely those within the groups where we spend most time and have stronger connections with others.
First: Be the change
People are highly attuned to hypocrisy and will distrust and ignore leaders who don’t walk their talk. Concern about sustainability isn’t therefore something we should keep hidden until we’re in a meeting about green issues.
This doesn’t mean we should be 24/7 ecowarriors which can be equally off-putting. But we should try, in all that we do and say, to draw on, and reinforce the best in human nature – our concern and care for other people and the rest of the living world.
In doing so, we not only influence by example, but also help ensure that any sustainability initiatives we develop are seen as authentic, meaningful and worthwhile.
Second: Give people permission to care
Our experience, confirmed by research, is that most people do care about the climate crisis and about other people. And, in the right circumstance people are open to change that makes a difference for other people and the rest of the living world. However, in many organisations the focus on deadlines, targets, quarterly reporting and so on crowds out our concern for others – except on charity days and the like.
One of the most valuable things we can do, is to give people permission to care, by creating opportunities talk about the impact – positive and negative – the organisation and its products and services, may be having on others, internally and externally, and on the living world. And then to explore opportunities to do something about it.
This approach has the potential to release people’s motivation and creativity, to find ways large and small, to start making the changes that are needed within the organisation, its supply chain and in its relationships with stakeholders.
Powerful though the ripple effect is, as sustainability leaders we must also understand and make use of the cascade effect to catalyse systemic change.
Making use of the cascade effect requires us to identify key points where the decisions made have a major influence on how things are done. Such points can include the setting of strategic goals, writing of strategic plans and policies, developing work plans and Key Performance Indicators, the allocation of budgets and so on. These could be at team, organisational or sector-wide levels.
Affecting change at these key points is often seen as the preserve of charismatic or powerful individuals, but in fact success is almost invariably the result of, an often small, groups of individuals working together – with vision, commitment and a strategic approach that catalyses systemic change.
The scale and scope of your ambition, and the effectiveness of your approach will be influenced by the context, experience, skills and connections of your group, and by the group’s willingness to plan, learn and adapt. Opportunities include shifting your organisation’s operations and strategies by adopting approaches such as the circular economy; encouraging and supporting your professional or trade associations to support a rapid and just transition to a sustainable economy; and influencing government policy to accelerate positive change; developing and implementing new technologies and techniques that help people thrive and restore the living world.
Catalysing systemic change lies at the heart of sustainability leadership and is an ever-expanding field of knowledge and practice. To get you started we’d like to highlight a couple of implications that are especially important for sustainability leadership.
First: Find your group
Finding a group to work with brings more influence to the process of catalysing systemic change and makes it easier to maintain energy and momentum in the face of resistance to change.
There might be obvious group in your organisation, a group of members in your professional or trade association, or simply a group of peers with a shared focus. If there is no obvious group, working on the ripple effect through giving people permission to care often brings people forward.
The effectiveness of any group depends heavily on establishing and maintaining strong and trusting relationships between group members. While focusing on bringing about systems change will be an important part of what your group does, it is important to ensure time is also given to why people are part of the group.
Taking the time, especially when the group first comes together, to share why each of you cares about sustainability and wants to work on it is an important part of this. As you go along it is also important to periodically ‘check in’ with how people are feeling about their sustainability journey, so why you are working on change does not get lost in what you are working to achieve.
Second: Find your points of leverage
Using your knowledge and experience of your team, organisation or sector, work together to understand where you have potential influence and identify points of leverage.
There are two main ways to affect change. If there is already a change process underway, for example your organisation is updating it’s strategic priorities, you can focus on influencing the outcomes of this change process. If there is no change process underway, the alternative is to catalyse change by initiating a new process, such as developing your organisation’s first sustainability action plan.