AIM for a Thriving Planet

This article addresses one of the most pressing issues facing organisations today: how do we create organisations capable of acting both wisely and successfully on our fragile and finite earth?

The Earth is in distress. This fact is no longer seriously contested.  We refer here not just the problem of global warming, with its detrimental climate consequences, but also the wide range of earth systems science research on the stressing of a connected series of systems on which planetary health depends.

Despite the clear empirical evidence, key decision makers seem to be slow or even reluctant to do anything address the situation.

It is difficult for corporate leaders in particular to know what they can do.

In our work we have often met leaders who are painfully conscious of the environmental situation but who feel stuck on how to play their part in addressing it well. The problem feels “too big”, and its resolution does not feel as if it is within the grasp of the boardroom – or at least in any way that will make much of a difference.

This is a classic example of a “wicked problem”: problems in which we are implicated, but where solutions lie beyond the control of the implicated parties acting alone.

The application of the AIM approach does not make this problem easier to resolve, but it can resource you to take the challenge seriously and it provides a rigorous way of improving the way you approach the issue ethically and creatively. This article suggests how.

A reminder of the AIM approach

Allowing is the practice of recognising reality for what it is. We all spend so much our time living in a “what if” world. When we are stuck in an attitude of wishing things weren’t like this or an attitude of denial, there is very little choice available to us. It’s fruitless to spend time wishing the world were somehow different. When you’re able to allow things to be as they actually then possibilities emerge.

Inquiry is the practice of disciplined interest in opening things up. So much of creating the future involves moving beyond the ways of seeing and acting that have brought us to the problem we’re in. The ability to address the problem creatively demands that we see the world another way. We can only see another way if we are willing to look through fresh lenses. This is where nurturing a team’s ability to inquire really matters.

Meta-awareness is the ability to look at the team from an ‘outsider’ perspective and see the behaviour of the team as it is happening. It is like looking down at the swirling patterns of people moving around a busy railway station from a high up balcony. The team learns to see itself in action. It sees what is going on its own collective behaviour and its own patterns – what it is doing while it is actually doing it.

Applying the AIM model to this problem

The first step is Allowing.

The most fundamental step is to acknowledge what is going on, right now, in respect of this challenge in your organisation and team. You might need to acknowledge that this issue isn’t even on your corporate radar, or that you are at a very early stage in addressing it. You may also need to accept that there is disagreement – perhaps this is an issue that not everyone in the team accepts as being important for the organisation. Whatever it is, allow it.

This then opens the way for Inquiring – the act of asking better questions can be in a catalyst for deeply radical change.

One of the first areas for curiosity is to explore relationships. As a member of the executive or leadership team, becoming curious about your organisational relationship with the planet is a great starting point. Ask: do we even care? What is the evidence that we take the viability of the earth seriously in our thinking and actions? You might choose to look at your executive agendas and your KPIs: to what extent does the needs of the living system of which you are part feature in any way in these? Be interested in what you see, and why, and see how this sits with your aspirations.

It will also be important to become curious about your organisational relationship with money and how this presents itself in your targets, and in the prioritisation between one target and another when they come into conflict.

We know at least one global company with a growth target and a net zero target, and it is plain to see which target gets backed by investment and incentives, and which one is a lower priority.

We have worked with very environmentally intelligent and committed executives who have found themselves feeling powerless to challenge harmful growth plans, one literally saying “if I tell the investors that they’ll have to accept a lower dividend, they’ll replace me as CFO in a heartbeat”. This is clear evidence that you have the wrong investors. If you find your investors cannot bear your environmental targets, you need to get curious about why you have allowed the firm to be funded by this money. There are investors looking for environmentally sound organisations: get curious about the investors you appeal to and why. It is a strategic choice to accept investors: you do not have to accept money from investors who have the wrong intent for your business.

Then we come to meta-awareness – paying attention to how you are thinking and acting while you are doing it. It is difficult to predict what you might notice as you are doing this work, but it could include patterns that support or hinder your work, include some people and views, exclude others, and open some windows to insight, whilst keeping others firmly closed. We counsel that you look out particularly for the following:

Try to notice your habitual framing. It is extremely likely that you will need to check-in, quite often, on the issue of “how are we framing this question”? Every way of framing something is also a way of not framing it another way. When we think about our world “this” way, it stops us considering “that” way. Try to become aware of which ways of seeing are so commonplace that you don’t see their limits.

Do pay attention to what is happening in terms of participation – who do we allow to be in this conversation with us? Notice the patterns of who gets included in these conversations, and whose voice carries most weight. Whatever patterns of power, inclusion and difference exist in your organisation, they will play out in these conversations. Sometimes the voices you most need to hear will be the ones you include least in the conversation – or the ones you include but who present their story in ways that are more difficult to hear. Notice this and work hard to include and hear. This also applies to kinds of data: you may notice patterns in what data even get considered as relevant in our organisation. The boundaries of the data we admit and accept are always influenced by the limits of our worldview. Noticing what we filter out can be an important part in allowing a richer way of seeing.

You may also notice that you have regular, even stuck, patterns when it comes to issues of identity –pay attention to how this thinking may limit your scope for creating new outcomes: For example, you may find yourself assuming that your company can’t exist if it isn’t like this.  We are limited by the way we define identity – and sometimes it can be fatal. The famous old story of “we are in the book business not the computer business” is still a salutary lesson.

Meta-awareness can be difficult to build on your own. This is where peer scrutiny and team coaching can be a very valuable asset – helping us all to notice the things that are hardest to see. But it is absolutely a learnable skill. The more you apply yourself to the practice, the greater the fruits.

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