Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, July 2016 - August 2016

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Sustainable Business Conversation, August 11, 2016 Topic: Experiential Learning (It's a Good Thing!)

Kimberly talks about her recent learning experience with one of their Simply Well Communities projects:

They had been working on a development located in a zoning special district that was supposed to make development better. Their development concept had a combination of multi-family housing and other uses to make the financials work. They hired an architect to draw up conceptual plans – and they were good. However, the architect did not check the zoning code to see if the plans would be allowed. Kimberly assumed that the architect, as an expert, would check the code, but he/she did not. She realized that, as the owner, it was her responsibility to check the zoning requirements. When she finally did read the complex zoning document, she realized that they would not be able to comply with parking requirements. A decision was made to walk away from the project at that location, and that was the best decision possible. If they had gone further down the road and been locked into financing, it would have ended badly, and expensively. Lessons learned:

  • Inform yourself; put your all into a project – but don’t just think with your heart – also use your head.
  • Don’t over-leverage yourself too quickly.
  • Tenacity is good, but ask yourself, "Am I pushing hard in the right direction?"
  • Learning from my own experience is more effective than trying to learn from someone else’s experiences.
  • Sometimes the cost of a lesson may be higher than I want, but what’s important is learning the lesson.

Geoff on the pop-up event for his new Japanese restaurant:

Geoff and his wife, Fumie, are in the process of opening a new restaurant in the Milwaukee Junction area of Detroit. They decided to put on a pop-up event to coincide with the Slow Roll in that area. The process of getting the necessary permits was much more complex than they had anticipated. They have a location and a liquor license, but there were about 9 steps to go through to be able to serve food or liquor before the space was officially open. There are also lots of hidden costs. The pop-up event is a good marketing move and builds awareness of their new restaurant, but they didn’t expect to encounter so many obstacles. Development includes a lot of nitty-gritty hard work that people don’t see. On the plus side, Geoff acknowledges the spirit of cooperation (or "cooperatition", as he calls it) that exists in Detroit. To their surprise, another established restaurant (Selden Standard) reached out to them with an offer of help as they work through the complexities of opening their new restaurant. Lessons learned:

  • If you’re self-employed, you wake up every day unemployed, (you have only yourself to rely on).
  • However, help is out there - business community in Detroit is very supportive.
  • When something fails, you go through a process of grieving, but you need to hold on to your original mission and vision. They went through the Seed Design process – and that gave them an anchor to hold onto when things got tough.

Darryl's lessons from the theater: In theater they have a concept for a production – which is like a mission statement. Everything needs to come back to the seed. You should not force the director’s vision – but should be open to the contributions of actors and others in the crew. A collaborative effort is much better than the vision of just one person.

A narrative by some guests from India: We’re from India and were amazed to see abandoned areas like parts of Pontiac. This abandonment would not happen in India – there is commerce going on all the time in lots of places. There is massive local production in India and those lower on the ladder always have something to do every day. Several years ago, I put together a project to construct a private railroad station in Mumbai (Bombay). I knew that getting development permits through normal channels would take at least 5 years and involve 17 different departments. Instead I arranged a meeting with the heads of all 17 departments and got the General Manager to take minutes that noted the major issues. In a matter of 17 weeks we worked through the issues with each department and got approvals. However, more obstacles (a law that never changed, and the 2008 market crash) eventually sank my project. I lost my life savings, but I recovered by becoming a consultant to others who want to do development in India. Some of the other investors in my project did not want to walk away – and wanted to get venture capital involved and do an even bigger and riskier project. I had to walk away. I just wanted to pay for my family. Some of my peers said “you’re a failure.” The ethos in India is to be a billionaire and bring in big companies. You have to decide where you want to be – and how to be happy. The unconference is a gathering that creates space for peer-to-peer learning. It was a great un-learning process for us. Our son got very involved and has challenged our thinking. He said to us “I’m 18 years old and doing my thing – but you are 40 or 50 years old and still can’t do your thing.”


Other comments/observations:

  • Learning is generative. The learning process is more important than the end point.
  • Overuse of standardized testing is killing good learning practices in schools.
  • When a seed germinates in a rocky place it will somehow find a way to grow in the cracks and get rooted.
  • Success is in the sharing. With sharing you build relationships.

Sustainable Business Conversation, August 4, 2016 Topic: Open vs. Closed Systems

Open systems thinking is one of the big ideas for the next 300 years.

  • Ludwig Bertalanffy was an Austrian biologist known as one of the founders of general systems theory. His book, General Systems Theory, was published in 1968 and discusses closed versus open systems.
  • Systems thinking unifies many fields; economics, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and more.
  • All of us have been educated in closed systems theory, which is embedded in typical academic programs. The thing is, closed systems don’t exist in reality – everything is surrounded by an environment and is connected.
  • Accounting and financial systems all deal with closed system models. Closed systems assume that everything around them remains constant. But that is not reality.
  • We have an education system, not a learning system. The models for conventional education enable teachers to give tests and grade students. But many kinds of learning do not fit this model.
  • Professors in colleges work in closed systems and the entire academic system gets narrower and narrower the higher you go. Professors are rewarded to study small, narrow, highly specific problems – not complex interdisciplinary issues. Have all the important problems in these narrow silos been solved?
  • Major world problems (social, political, environmental) that cross many disciplines have not really touched by academia.
  • Making plans in a closed system leads to undesirable outcomes such as fragile results and unintended consequences. For example:
    • No one planned to create huge blooms of toxic algae in Lake Erie, or cause substantial air pollution near industry – yet these things continue to happen.
    • When Moody's did a conventional audit of Lehman Brothers in 2008, they gave them a good rating. Yet one week later Lehman Brothers was out of business due to conditions not on the balance sheet. The conventional rating system did not see the broader cascading effects of loss of trust, which eventually brought down that company. Lots of significant risks in business do not show up on the balance sheet.
  • Closed systems vs. Open Systems:
    • Closed systems can only continue to exist if you keep putting more energy and resources into the system. Without these constant inputs, they cannot keep going.
    • On the other hand, open systems draw energy from the environment around them and can sustain themselves.
  • The Green Garage approach:
    • The Green Garage approach to open systems design emphasizes connections to the community and the environment – and lets energy come in. It’s easier to teach someone how to design a fragile, risky system than it is to teach someone how to design an open system. You have to change the way you think before you can act. Businesses have edges – you need to keep the edges alive.
    • The Green Seeds consulting practice takes an ecological view and applies it to business. In seed development, a diverse group takes part in community design. When you get all kinds of people around the table, the results are much better.
  • In working on buildings and development, we have to consider what the city requires and what the building code mandates. But we want to open up our thinking – there are other development models around the world with good ideas. We're willing to broach some new ideas with the city.
  • When managing supply chains, you have to deal with variability and uncertainty. How can you help the situation? Maybe line up back-up suppliers and keep informed of changing trends. Suppliers can help each other.
  • Cooperatition – is a way of supporting each other and also competing with each other.
  • For psychotherapists, our work is more of a closed system, one-on-one with a client. Social work in the community seems more like an open system. When a client comes to me all closed up, my job as a therapist is to open them up in healthy ways. I sometimes suggest that a client do something different every day. For example, drive to work a different way, try different food for lunch. Too much stress sometimes leads to people shutting down.
  • How can people build trust? Trust is the gateway – and sometimes the gate is not open. Authenticity and transparency are key.
  • Some businesses don't treat you as a customer, but only as a financial transaction. This inability to be open and available to ones customers will cost them their business in the end.
  • Hierarchical systems focus on the chain of command, but this is not the way for businesses to succeed in the future. Too much emphasis on a hierarchy causes problems and today we see many kinds of hierarchical systems crumbling. Top people in a hierarchy have the illusion of control – but it’s a temporary control and must be re-established over and over again. The way the world is changing faster and faster means it’s ever harder to maintain the illusion of control than it used to be.
  • The internet and technology have made it easier to form networks and communicate. A closed system is challenged by this new reality. Fifty years ago, before the internet, it was easier maintain a hierarchical structure. Now businesses are overwhelmed with new information from everywhere and it may be impossible to keep up. Corporate America is lost in big data. In the end open systems will prevail.
  • Modern policing focuses on putting police on the street where they can communicate and form relationships.
  • As a financial advisor, it’s really about the people. I treat people the way I’d like to be treated. I hold client events every year to build relationships. A client can bring someone with them if they want – it’s an open invitation – and an open system.

Sustainable Business Conversation, July 28, 2016 Topic: Money and Sustainability - Friends or Foes?

How do we think about money and its relationship to our businesses - is money a friend or a foe?

  • People of limited means are often more inventive than those with money. It’s important not to waste things. Our grandparents were thrifty – caught rain in rain barrels, grew food in their garden, and made compost. Doing things to save energy like preventing drafts has the advantage of both raising the comfort level for people in a building, and saving money.
  • Money should not be a friend or foe issue – we should have a broader understanding of the role of money in our businesses. When the economy crashed in 2008-9, some companies went overboard on draconian things. Some corporations decided that environmental and social initiatives were a frill and had to be cut when survival of the company became an issue. The idea was to save a little cash to survive. But long-term strategy still mattered. Ford kept working on their electric vehicle and fuel efficiency programs because they were looking to the future.
  • Cash is also needed to keep working on the long-term when the short-term outlook is bleak. Ford had taken steps to build up cash reserves before the market crashed. Having that cushion allowed them to keep to a long-term vision.
  • To what extent does the monetary system embody all of the costs? Many valuable/important aspects of running a business (environmental impacts, social concerns) are left out of the corporate balance sheet. Profit and loss numbers have center stage for accounting.
  • Different things are possible at different stages of life. If someone is going through a serious health crisis, there may be no energy for long-term thinking. Western medicine treats the body through symptoms, not root causes. For example, heartburn is a symptom of stress and perhaps diet. But there are many medications to treat the symptom. Holistic medicine looks for the root causes and thinks about a bigger picture. Studying wellness taught me that I’m connected to the environment. We need to shift how we look at the environment. We need a good environment, healthy people and a profitable economy.
  • We tend to think that a businessman is the opposite of an environmentalist – but we can be both. The environment is where we are. We need to preserve it for future generations.
  • Sustainability in education: Sustainability in universities is challenging because you can’t put it in just one academic department. It’s everywhere and affects all of us. It’s like the need for generalists and family practitioners in the practice of medicine when there is so much specialization. It’s hard to get all these specialists to talk to each other – a team approach is needed.
  • When putting together a planning budget, I tend to underestimate savings until I see the proof. If a certain product is supposed to make your energy costs decrease by 75%, I will only plan for a 50% decrease. Planning budgets always have a fudge factor. It’s possible to kill a project by using unproven assumptions. Don’t go strictly off the numbers. The only thing that’s guaranteed is that the planning numbers will be wrong. We can only hope that they are off in the right direction.

Sustainable Business Conversation, July 21, 2016 Topic: Creating Change Around Sustainability

* On change: When you’re working on change, the biggest issues are between people’s ears. You need to find the change within the person you’re working with.

  • Language we use around change is important. Instead of talking about “silos”, we would rather say “streams”. Streams have a flow and different streams can come together. Silos are dangerous; you can only enter from the top.
  • Business example: Imagine a consultant who has been hired to create change at an LED light company with 200 people. It’s a relatively new operation and the consultant is almost the only one who understands sustainability concepts. How can he bring all these people into an understanding of a triple bottom line business and sustainability? When you’re a consultant trying to get people from point A (no understanding) to point B (deep understanding), it doesn’t work to just stand on point B and wave at the others. The way adult learning happens is that the teacher needs to join the people at point A and go step by step to get to point B while working together. The cool thing is that the nature of point B will change in the process as everybody learns together. Are we trying to change someone else – or are we available to be changed?
  • I have done consulting in museum work and the first thing is to understand the mission of the museum. Who are the visitors? What do we want to offer them? Why do we want to move in a certain direction? Answers to these questions are key to moving forward. People need to know you’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Taking the time to look at the purpose/mission of an organization can seem very inconvenient and unnecessary. If we honor the process and take the time, it can get us further than we think at first.
  • I worked on a project to get the Black community to vote more consistently. It involved role playing and walking through various scenarios – either playing a character or being yourself. Learning why things matter is key. Some folks are angry about evidence of racial discrimination in jury trials. But they may not realize that if Blacks don’t register to vote, they will not be on jury rolls and will never be called for jury duty.
  • Businesses may change based on what customers want. Change costs time and money – so there is naturally some resistance.
  • There needs to be a safe space around which to communicate ideas on change.
  • Change happens, even if slowly. The cost of green alternatives can be higher and the profit motive means that we sometimes pick the cheaper option over the greener option. We all want a clean healthy planet to live on. We already know what some of the solutions are – but they are not available to many. That’s the part that’s missing – what’s stopping change? One block is that the cost of green alternatives seems excessive. The profit motive means that we go to the cheaper option which is generally non-green. Yet somehow change happens.

Home Depot used to have very few (expensive) energy efficient light bulbs. Now you go there and there’s a wall of energy efficient choices and there are very few incandescent bulbs. Sustainable food seems to cost more in the short term. But if you look at the big picture and factor in health care costs and environmental costs, the economics change. Some costs never show up on a corporate profit/loss statement. The utility industry also needs to take a long view. A power plant has a long life cycle and construction costs need to be justified over the long term. How can we make change happen? Who cares the most about this topic? Who cares the least? Sustainability can be used as a marketing tool – whether it’s a sincere effort or not. To work with volunteers, you need to find the gifts in each individual. How can each one contribute to the group moving in a certain direction (north)? The leader needs to define what is north – and keep the group on track. Also need to match time, passions and skillsets of volunteers to the moving target of the task. A diverse group working on a problem leads to more resilient answers. Different people connect differently. We need to build a sustainable future based on gifts already there. You cannot change other people. A facilitator needs to find points of commonality and look for pathways to change. It is possible to facilitate change and walk alongside those involved. The answers are already in the people – we need to help them access the answers. We need visionaries to drive us where we need to go. But celebrity worship has its limits. Empowering individuals is just as important. We need to be aware of our place in history. There probably is not just one next big thing for Detroit.

Sustainability Discussion, July 14, 2016 

Topic this week: Collaboration ecosystem for SCORE Detroit SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) is working on ways to improve their impact in Detroit. They want to know where to find people to mentor and how to find volunteers to do mentoring. The organization has monthly workshops on topics such as how to use social media or how to create a website. At SCORE we believe we should be doing more listening than talking. Not all volunteers are comfortable working in the city. Various other groups do workshops, for instance; Entrepreneur U., Dolphin Tank, Michigan Women’s Foundation, D Hive, Focus Hope, Detroit Soup and economic development groups. California has a startup slam where entrepreneurs tell a story. Media in this area include; Crains, Model D, Detroit Chronicle, Startup Nation, Blac Detroit Magazine. Mentors need ongoing training to stay relevant. Pecha Kucha is a pitch workshop with a concise presentation format that originated in Japan. One of the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit is Osborne, 48207. It’s challenging to open a business there – there are safety issues and people have little money. Some folks are unwilling to acknowledge what they don’t know or understand. They need to be confident that you’re on their team. Confidentially may be a concern. People living in Osborne have skills but have no idea of how to make a business using them. Some have lost hope. If you don’t really understand the market – you might wind up building a laundromat in an area that really isn’t interested in using the facility. How can you engage people in meaningful work? It’s like the challenges facing Peace Corps volunteers. You need to figure out who will be a leader in the community and commit to the changes and keeping them going. Change means a cultural shift – it needs to be approached with sensitivity.

Sustainability Discussion, July 7, 2016 Topic this week: Education and sustainability The University of Michigan has the Graham Sustainability Institute which provides interdisciplinary and cross-functional undergraduate programs in sustainability. The Erb Institute at U of M offers a 3 year graduate program that combines a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) and a Masters in environmental studies. Graduates with this training may go into a workplace that’s not ready for this knowledge. Even with a great education – there’s push back. The Total Quality Management (TQM) programs in manufacturing incorporate ideas related to sustainability. These include concepts of increasing efficiency, team work and continuous improvement. Statistical Process Control contributes to TQM. Sustainability has educational aspects but also cultural aspects. I took a course in Sustainable Environmental Design at Wayne County Community College. People don’t know how much money they can save by just installing good windows. I know a lot about lawns and I’ve been watching what happens during this drought. Lawns that used a lot of chemicals are turning brown faster. Lawns that stayed green mostly didn’t use chemicals. People need to think more about what benefits them in the long run. Education needs to start in kindergarten. They should be able to squeeze in a few minutes to talk about sustainability. Too many extra classes (wood shop, home ec) have been cut. Homeroom was my favorite class. I teach my grandkids – don’t tear it up, make it last. I started a rain barrel business but there’s not much demand. Sometimes I give them away. I learned about sustainability through slowing down, being patient and looking at the whole picture, beginning to end. You have to think long term versus short term and then look at your wallet. Conversations at Green Garage help a lot.

We risk creating dissonance if young kids get education and want to go green but their parents say no to these ideas. Educators shouldn’t just focus on the young.  Multiple ages need to be involved. 

I’ve studied green chemistry and really like the book Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough which looks at the origin of and the fate of all of the chemicals and materials we use. I’m a deep fish that swims close to the bottom and can look pretty weird, but I think deeply about things. The attitude that everyone should go to college is not true. Some kids would do better in vocational technical classes than in mechanical engineering. My uncle had very little schooling and made a very good living hauling trash in the city and raised a good family. I’m really into compostable products (cups, plates, carryout boxes) and I find college students who are really into this too. There are some blocks getting these products into some universities because some donors oppose these changes. Some companies make money selling Styrofoam products and put a kibosh on changing to compostables. Compostables do cost more – but there are benefits if you think about the big picture. Politics also plays a part in making changes or blocking changes. The Michigan Brewers Guild wants to go zero waste, which could involve compostable containers for food and beverages. Student activism can help open possibilities for new ideas. Talking about ideas is a start, even if action is not possible at first. I come from South Korea where materials are limited and a recycling mentality runs deep. Sustainability is ingrained from a young age. I went into culture shock when I first came to the US – so much waste. I always wrote on all pages of a notebook and was shocked to see classmates just write on one side. An old proverb says that education is a 100 year plan. I will start this thing now, but I won’t be the one that finishes it. Change takes time – like the time it takes to establish a forest. If I plant a fruit or nut tree now, it may take 5 to 10 years before there is a harvest. The LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) market is growing. More choices are coming as this market grows.