Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, Apr 2013 - May 2013

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May 9, 2013 Topic: Asking the Right Questions

Comments from last week: Form vs. Structure

Organizational structure and fractals:

  • Nature repeats smaller structures that work (fractals) - leaves on a tree, for example.
  • How do you do fractal growth in organizations rather than monolithic growth?
  • Fractal growth also includes variety and diversity, like the variety and diversity of trees and other vegetation you see in a forest.
  • Is the structure of your organization scalable? We work and think in a 20th century model of industrial scalability, but does that model work in sustainability?
  • There can be big problems with businesses as they grow larger and larger; if, instead of readjusting structure to meet the requirements of a larger organization, the structure remains unchanged and you just try to "grow the leaf bigger", it may all fall apart in the end.

The right question.jpg

Topic today: Asking the Right Questions (Hannah)

Hannah's in-laws are both biologists and through them she has learned that science is all about knowing how to ask the right questions. Applying scientific method to the right questions results in good learning and valid answers. But if you ask the wrong questions, your work and results will be irrelevant and will have no real value or meaning.

  • It is not helpful to ask questions that lead you to a place you really don't want to go.
  • Sometimes we are so involved in something that we can't gain enough perspective to know what questions to ask.
  • Start with the right scale; don't focus on the small details of your work until you have dealt with the more important, overriding issues that you should be dealing with first.
  • Understanding the central purpose (seed) of your business will help you to formulate the right questions.
  • Knowing what you don't know - The right question defines the edge of your knowledge, not what you know, but what questions you have.
  • What questions do those in your organization hold and how do their questions actually drive the growth of your company? Those in a leadership role must have an understanding of the questions held within their organization.
  • A saying in Japan: To get to the truth, you must ask why 6 times.
  • Letting go of fear and ego: Some people aren't comfortable asking questions - it takes self-awareness, knowledge and forgiveness of yourself (for not having all the answers).
  • How do artists ask questions? Tunde says he tries to get to a question that creates some order in the chaos around him. The more he knows, the more he understands that there's even more outside his realm of knowledge than he is aware of. Artists keep thinking about things and asking a lot of questions.
  • Here's an alternative that is often put to us, an example of asking the "wrong question": We can have an economy or we can have a healthy environment: which do you want? In asking the question this way they have given us a framework within which we have to answer, but the context of the question is completely wrong.
  • Questions through lens of the entrepreneur - the "outside-in" approach: Davita remarks that funding, money, plays a role in the kinds of questions we ask and answers we're trying to find. Entrepreneurs frequently ask questions directed to the specific interests of investors. They know where the money is and what investors want to fund, so they ask questions and put their focus in those areas, not asking the questions that really need to be asked. Work from the inside-out instead - do the work that you love to do and that you're passionate about.

Suggested list of fundamental questions that every business leader should ask:

  • Who am I?
  • What am I good at?
  • What do I love?
  • Identity of your seed - are you an apple tree or an oak tree or a daisy?
  • What problem are you working on? What is the question you have?

Davita's list of questions re: her kitchen rental business:

  • Will use of these kitchens allow you to kick off and support your business?
  • Will use of these kitchens allow you to have a legal/documented business?
  • Will this bring jobs to the city?
  • Personal questions- why me? why now? why am I here?
  • Staying curious, continuous learning, is the key to having a sustainable business. (David)
  • Business is like a conversation: there should be a constant feedback between you and your customers/clients and between you and those you work with that will allow your business to evolve and respond. This conversation will generate good questions.
  • FoodLab: Each individual member business in FoodLab has their own questions and FoodLab has its own questions, too. As FoodLab looks for answers, there is a synergy between them and their member businesses, so in answering their own questions, they are able to help the businesses they work with to come to their own answers, too.

Keep asking questions!

May 2, 2013 Topic: Form vs. Structure

Notes from last week: Uncertainty

Recommended by Matt Dibble: Radio Lab: Dealing With Doubt

  • There's a difference between the "correct" decision and a decision that works in the short term
  • Some decisions you make might not work out in the short term but are the correct decisions for the long term.
  • If you have a healthy relationship with uncertainty and understand risk, it can take all the guilt and fear out of your decision making.
  • In business, we don't need to be successful all the time.
  • You can't do anything or move forward if you can't accept some risk.

Managing risk = understanding probability. If you set a goal and recognize that each step leading to that goal has a 90% probability of happening, you have to recognize that the probability of ALL of the steps happening as they should isn't 90%, but .9 x .9 x .9… Make sure that you really understand the probability of everything working the way you want it to in order to get to your goal.

The Bad Win: Sometimes we make a bad decision that turns out well, despite ourselves. Don't look back as say, "that must've been the right thing to do because it turned out well." Take the time to really analyze your choices and what really leads to good/bad results. A sustainable business has to have a healthy relationship with uncertainty.

Have we made money the benchmark? Can you lose money and still have done the right thing? Take the long term view. Making the right choice is important regardless of money.

Looking at the long term: Weather is an uncertain natural system. How do you design a building for weather? If you look at the average temperature for Michigan, it is extremely stable with very little variation over the long term. But if you look at the temperature on just one particular day (short term) it can vary really widely - 50 degrees in a 24 hour period. So in what time frame are you going to think about uncertainty? one day? one year? ten years?

What does it mean to have a healthy relationship with uncertainty? Awareness that there is uncertainty and understanding the uncertainty you're working with. How do you begin to work within the variation that naturally occurs in a way that best serves your business?


Topic today: Form and Structure (Chris Haag)

What are the characteristics of something that is quality? It has form and structure. But what do those words mean?

Structure: something foundational, built to last Form: aesthetic appeal; a reflection of the core structure Example: Healthy person has an outward appearance (form) of health. This could be a result of healthy life practices (structure). But some people try to achieve the outward appearance of health (form) by starving themselves and drinking Red Bull, ignoring the structure, i.e. the foundational practices that got a person to a healthy form in the first place.

Do you have to start with structure? Does form grow out of structure? Which is most important to start with?

Q: What is the role of form and structure in sustainable business?

  • Leaders have responsibility to think about what form of organization they want and what form of company they want to grow. For some "green" companies, it's mostly about form. Their marketing gives the illusion of an environmentally structured company but it's mostly just hype.
  • Companies have to have the foundational structure that is then reflected in form.
  • Recognize that the market is very consumer driven - people want to buy something from eco friendly companies. But is a company truly eco-friendly when they ask questions like, "What dyes do we need to use to arrive at that perfect color of brown to make our packaging look more natural?"
  • Is Ford Motor Co. really a green company? They make cars….. can that truly be considered green?
  • Consistency from beginning to end: The relationship between form and structure has to be consistent - there shouldn't be any incongruity between what you say (or what image you project) and who you really are.

Q: Can you start with form and then build your structure to fit the desired form?

  • When the United States was first founded, there was a form there, but not a structure. The founders developed the constitution that gave structure to the nation.
  • Real work and understanding has to be in the structure. Understand what your structure is and that will lead to form. Understand yourself, where your place is and the structure of your business. You'll attract people and resources to your business in a way that it might become something more than you could have imagined in the first place.
  • Most successful companies will be the ones who are the most consistent in form and structure over time.

What happens to companies grow from a few value driven few people to something much larger? What happens to the functioning of the company? Does form or structure break down?

  • As you evolve out of the structure of the 5 founders and move to 25 people, then 125 people, then 525 people, you have to create a new and different structure in order to maintain the spirit of the first 5. When you try to take something that has a structure for a small group and you grow it exponentially, you begin to lose the original structure. Nature uses fractals for growth. That's why trees have many leaves instead of one large leaf; a tree would need an entirely different structure to be able to support one giant leaf.

What happens when a visionary leader leaves a company - everyone was working well together and was on board, but when that one person leaves, everything falls apart? (Adrienne)

  • Create a method that people can follow - that can be the structure.
  • Recognize that even healthy organizations can come to a natural end, and there is a way to let these go. The structure lives on in the people who worked there who take it with them into the next thing they do; it spreads and propagates (fractals). Companies don't have to be 150 years old - longevity doesn't have to be the goal. Understand natural beginnings and ends. Understand the natural forms.

It's ok to start with a vague idea of what you want to be, what you want your business to be, and then play around with that vision - be flexible with your vision as the structure below develops.

Structure - what makes up a structure in a sustainable business - what has to be there for that structure to exist? Most of it is non-physical:

  • Trust - can I trust someone that is not in my organization? many small businesses don't trust anyone and that can detrimental to their business.
  • Culture - culture of transparency, e.g. All this becomes the "soil" of a business - a place for ideas to emerge, like plants from soils.

There can be a spirit in a business, something at it's very core, something intangible that is not captured by either structure or form, but permeates both, the "dark matter" of business.

April 25, 2013 Topic: Certainty vs. Uncertainty

Comments from last week conversation about Systems:

In trying to create a sustainable organization, the systems you're working within are really very large. How do you work with the systems as they exist and make those systems work for you?

Matt S.: The Pill Pouch product is starting to morph into something that is beginning to work on and within existing systems.

The belief that you need to completely or fundamentally change existing systems is not necessarily true. You are part of systems that are already in place and have to work around and within these systems. Only way to affect real change is to work around an existing system(s), wearing down the edges until the system is ready to change.

Invisible systems: Sometimes there are invisible systems that you are unaware of until you intersect with them. Ex: As soon as word got out that Adrienne's house was broken into, the "invisible system" of her neighborhood network appeared and she realized it was there the whole time.

Technology systems: Most of us use smart phones, but we all use them slightly differently and then we share information about how we use them. We all have our own systems for using technology that are particular to our needs and interests, and we learn how others use technology so that we understand the best way to communicate with them. Select which medium is best for which people, and for what kind of conversation you want to have.

Systems within a system - starting small: Everyone has their own way of using and interacting with systems. From a leadership standpoint, this knowledge is essential. Trying to get work done through the building and safety department, Tom found that they must understand the large system but that the individuals within each department have their own personal systems and ways of working. He found it most effective to work with these individuals first and use that to inform their work within the larger system. These people know the larger system and have a better understanding of how to make that work for your specific needs. GG does all their work face to face rather than over the phone because that works best and gets the best result.

Jeff's comment: Face to face is a good way to set up relationships, but not the best way to manage tasks.

The only thing that's certain...

Today's topic: Certainty vs. Uncertainty:

Comments from the group:

  • We need certainty in our work in order to move forward - it can provide stability.
  • Can certainty be a potential weakness? What if you're wrong?
  • Keep an open mind: People who are certain about their ideas can experience a "shock" when their world is destabilized. But if you're already questioning and open to new ideas and information, then changes are easier to deal with.
  • Be comfortable with uncertainty: You can be comfortable with your ideas without being absolute about the truth of what you're doing. There has to be a certain degree of comfort with uncertainty. But within reason; you can't have your mind bogged down with questions.
  • If you had to be certain about everything that you do in order to take action, you'd never do anything. It's ok to be wrong - it's a learning process. But it's really a problem when you believe you are absolutely right.
  • Have that inner belief that what you're doing, that is, the general direction you are moving, is right, even when others are telling you you are wrong.
  • Risk management: How much can I mitigate that risk so that things don't blow up in my face? Understand what you know and what you don't know. Being unaware of what you don't know can be dangerous.
  • Evaluate consequences: What's the worst case scenario if you're wrong in the end - what will the results be? Have a realistic understanding the consequences of failure.
  • So few decisions are really life or death. More is lost through indecision than through wrong decisions.
  • Do we have a system or processes that is allowing us to continually adapt our decisions? We have to make decisions in a world in flux. A leader should develop systems that are resilient and can adjust and adapt.
  • When your business is young, the system has to play (like we let kids play) and we should let things play out on a small scale, learning from successes and mistakes.
  • Keep focused on your "North": People can start with good intentions, but through a series of small decisions, make questionable decisions here and there until they reach a point where their business has now lost its integrity. Be willing to be open, but keep focused on your North.
  • Be confident, not certain: If you've made a compromise and there are things that are inconsistent with your vision, it might be ok to live with that disconnection. You hope that there will be action that will grow out of that inconsistency. But if you make that compromise without seeing the impact or reality of that decision on your business, then the whole thing begins to unravel. Recognize that this is a compromise understand that and it will move you in the direction you want to go. See it and recognize it, but don't turn a blind eye.
  • Some of the best most sustainable companies are the ones that have the most healthy relationship with uncertainty. You can work with uncertain information in uncertain times and spaces.
  • Use incremental steps (Hannah): You can test your theories without taking on too much risk. Hannah built her business through incremental steps - every little piece had been tested, proved, built on, so she never felt she was taking on too much risk.
  • What's the value of a "business case": Banks and other lenders will ask: Do you have a business case for this? The mentality is that if you have a business case, then you really have something there that will work, but this is not necessarily true. Business cases have lots of uncertainty and just a bit of certainty, and often fail. Often people don't really do the foundational work for their business and don't truly recognize the inherent risks. It's like basing your certainty on stuff you made up.
  • Prepare for where North might be, then get the entrepreneur ready for the challenge of adjusting to flux, change, unexpected events, etc.

Recommended reading: Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance by Jonathon Fields

April 18, 2013 Topic: Systems

Comments from last week's conversation on Language:

Things to consider as leaders in Sustainability:

  • We have the power and obligation to attach new meaning to words or phrases: "Heading North"
  • Words/expressions we use should reflect our beliefs and what we are endorsing
  • Our use of language guides our thoughts, and our thoughts guide our actions. We have to change our language first in order to change our actions. Until you start thinking about what you mean by sustainability and what it means to you, you can't find the appropriate language.
  • Be intentional in your use of language. Most people don't think about what they say. They just talk and stuff comes out. You have to be more intentional.

Pill Pouch: Matt and Jessica think about the language they use to talk about people in the later years of their lives and how this language represents healthy relationships with these people. AARP? Retirees? Elderly? What does these terms really mean?

Here, at GG, we have leadership trying to effect change. So, start with the language first. We have to be participants in the evolution of our language because that language creates the framework from which actions can arise.

Share our understanding of language: What does "green" mean? "organic"? "native plants"? "Eco-friendly"? "Sustainable"? These terms are still evolving and are relatively new. Meanings are different to everyone right now. We all need to communicate with one another and share our understanding of the meanings of some of these terms.

Sometimes we appropriate existing words to create new phrases and new meanings, or use existing words used in a new context. You have to indicate that you are using a word in a new and different way. (ex: Pill Pouch defines themselves as a natural, inter-generational community).

Tunde: Sometimes words can get in the way of your intent, so talk about it. Continuous conversation, talking with others about the work you want to do can help you to eventually arrive at the appropriate language for your work. Jessica and Matt were able to refine their language by frequent and on-going conversations, and the language that they wanted eventually evolved from these conversations.

Use Google search as a language tool: Type in a word. See what comes up - are those articles what you are talking about or not? Keep reworking your search words until you come up with what it is you mean and are looking for. It's a cool way of polling the wider public.

Sites like Pinterest and YouTube remind us that many people understand things through images rather than words.

Topic for today: Systems


  • What is a system?
  • What does it mean to our business and their outcomes?
  • What is our relationship to other people, tools and other systems?
  • What are the things that really make something a system?
  • Do we need to create entirely new systems or is there a way to leverage existing systems to move into a new way of doing things, new relationships?

A System is a network of processes. Process can be anything - relationships, doing a tasks, etc. Whatever these things are, whatever processes they are, taken together they create a network.

Pill Pouch is functioning in a network of relationships - input/output. Matt and Jessica wonder how in their work with other people they can strengthen the relationships and the systems between them? How can they be intentional about designing systems? Is there a broader system that sits above the products systems and services systems that ties everything together in a natural, helpful way?

Natural systems vs. manmade systems:

  • Man-made systems are inherently flawed and there are frequently unintended consequences.
  • However, we aren't (as humans) separate from nature. We are part of natural world. So can we consider the systems we create truly unnatural?
  • When some of our human systems begin falling apart, we reach a point of critical mass where new ideas evolve and are created.

The Big Thing vs. The Small Thing: In Sustainability work we are trying to develop new ways and new patterns of doing things.

  • If you said I want to mass market something you have to think about the large systems in place and how you're going to nudge them (rather than reinvent them). Large systems have a lot of momentum and its hard to communicate new ideas to large groups of people. It's hard to effect real change over large systems.
  • If you're working on small scale stuff, there's a much greater chance that you'll be able to change something - really reinvent something - which can lead to a larger, broader changes. We don't have to change the big thing. By just making small changes, other people will see what we have done and the small ideas will spread more naturally. It's too difficult to take on the big things. Small, new patterns are easier
  • There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. (Victor Hugo)

Other thoughts on systems:

  • Cycles are part of systems design.
  • GG is currently involved in a rooftop farm project which has led us to a deep study of soil ecology. We have learned that soil systems are incredibly rich and complex and we know about only .01% of all living organisms under the ground - our work with growing plants is clearly incomplete.
  • Enzio Manzini (a leading expert on sustainable design) says that all design will be systems design in the future. Where did the ore come from? Where did the steel come from? Where did the glass come from? The computer chip? We realize that the iPhone isn't a product, it's a system.

Pill Pouch is learning about relationships and learning how to collaborate, and work together rather than working at odds. It took them many months of conversation with doctors and pharmacies, learning about what their needs and challenges were, to find out what were their shared interests were. They are not necessarily creating new relationships but are working to enhance and improve existing relationships. The relationships already exist, but they want to enhance them for the mutual benefit of everyone involved.

Systems design might be something more like a compass than a map because we are dealing with something that is so large.

  • Find your North.
  • Look at the relationships that are right in front of you - get those healthy and whole. (System becomes "infected" by the healthy/whole thing.)
  • Try to find equilibrium even though things tend to be always in flux, always changing.
  • Find the areas you can have an effect on and don't worry about the rest.

Recommended Reading: One Straw Revolution, on one man's quest and success in working with natural systems, not against them.

April 11, 2013 Topic: Language

Comments from last week: How do you move from a one person company to more than one?

How to grow from the individual to two or more people, including both employees and a wider network of people. How does that happen? How do you know who will be a good fit and what you really need?

Here's an example of how this might happen:

  • An individual starts up a company alone.
  • Business picks up and the work load increases and they feel the need to bring on someone else to take on a particular task or tasks that they no longer have time to do, bookkeeping, for example.
  • Business might expand and they need another person to work with clients or customers or, perhaps to do more of the technical work while the owner deals more with customers.

Internal/External: It is common to find in a small business that one person will deal more with the customers (external) while the other does more of the technical work (internal) - it's a tag team approach.

There is no perfect roadmap for this. Not really, so having to figure out how to make that work can be tricky.

Trusting others: If a person is not willing to give over control of a portion of their business (letting someone else keep the books, for example), it may happen that they will not have the time or resources, then, to grow the business in the way they might like. There is an element of trust that comes into this.

It might be better to start from the beginning with at least two people, particularly people with different backgrounds and experiences:

  • You have someone to bounce ideas off of and you will expose one another to a broader perspective.
  • Sharing ideas and engaging in conversation right from the beginning creates an open environment in your business.
  • Allows each person to move beyond their own perspective -- break through their own barriers.

The El Moore story: In the process of deconstruction at the El Moore, they are removing old wood trim and want to store it and reuse it later. Tom suggested they rent a storage pod to put the trim in. Jason suggested that they store it in an empty building in the neighborhood. He connected with a local resident and property owner, Pat Dorn. Pat thought it was a great idea and has space available for storage. He also suggested that they hire local people who are looking for work to remove nails from the wood. So, this started with the idea of simply renting a pod to, now, a community project. None of this would've happened if it had just been Tom: Jason's idea opened up the whole thing. Establishing a network like this fundamentally reduces your project's risk.

Plus , it's more fun working with a team. and there's accountability too.

How do we direct the evolution of language around sustainability?

Today's topic: Language

Language is a living thing- always evolving and always changing.

Leaders in sustainability: we have a responsibility to run our businesses sustainably, how does language fit into this? How do we use and understand language? How can the language that we use affect the work that we do in creating a more sustainable city?

How do you define sustainability? It's hard to come to a good definition of sustainability.

  • The authors of Cradle to Cradle ask us to think about if something is really sustainable, or just less bad?
  • Sustainability can be something that is able to go on into perpetuity.
  • Sustainability can also mean that there is no concept of waste.
  • Sustainability goes to that interdependence of all organisms on earth. Is waste really waste? Where does waste go? what might it feed? Waste is just a resource that's in the wrong place


  • Do I even know what I mean, myself, when talking about sustainability?
  • How do we convey that meaning to others? Just by living it? By establishing a standard and certifications? (For example, at GG, decided not to use LEED standard LEED isn't about the result, just about following a checklist - we're about the planet, not about points).

We have to get clear and intentional about what we're doing - we need to understand ourselves what we mean!

The meaning of words evolves. We cannot stop language from changing, evolving, but we might be able to direct this evolution in the area of sustainability.

  • Sebastian talks about "heads" in his salon business, not people.
  • Adrienne's group talks about "pets" (John and Neal (in pet biz conversation) suggested that the word "pet" not be used in the name of the business because, if we are being intentional about the nature of this business, then "pet" doesn't fit).
  • The names we use to identify groups of people is constantly evolving and what is considered acceptable and correct changes all the time.

How do you use language to explain the nature of your business? At the GG, when people come to us looking for office space, we can tell them to drive down Woodward Ave. and look left and right and there will be lots of space to rent. If, however, they're looking for a community, then maybe they're in the right place. Language is important in being intentional about what you're trying to do.

Be leaders in language: As leaders in sustainability, we need to be intentional about the language that we use. We have to be instrumental in evolving that language to effectively communicate the work that we do. Because this is a new area of work, it is vital that we have a clear understanding of the language that we use and what we mean by it.

Here's an interesting article about language in the area of sustainability from The Language of Sustainability: Why Words Matter by David Jaber

Earlier Conversations:

Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, continued Sept - Oct 2012

Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, cont'd. Aug - Sept 2012

Sustainable Business - Learning Community Conversations June - Aug 2012

Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations Feb - May 2012

Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, Nov - Dec 2012

Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, Jan - Feb 2013

Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, Feb 2013 - March 2013