Blog: How Would Your Company Respond to a Wake-up Call?

By Beth Tener, Principal of New Directions Collaborative


PG&E, California’s largest electric utility, recently filed for bankruptcy, in what many in the business press were calling “the first major corporate casualty of climate change.”  As we think about how organizations and communities adapt to change, particularly a changing climate, this story has some potent lessons.

California’s forests are more combustible, in part arising from changes in weather patterns from climate change. A failure of equipment or hanging wire that may not have been a problem a few years ago, now can cause massive damage in a short time. “Five of the 10 most destructive fires in California since 2015 have been linked to PG&E’s electrical network,” according to a New York Times article.  PG&E missed the wake-up call and the opportunity to respond to changing conditions before them.

Climate is just one of many issues that is and will be, sparking wake up calls in the years to come. How do we strengthen our organization and community’s ability to respond proactively to wake up calls rather than go back to sleep? A core capacity needed now is the ability to be sensitive to the changing landscape – to recognize the changes, understand the implications, imagine and be ready for futures quite different than the past (i.e., collective sensemaking). Then, it is key to respond – to be innovative, adapt, change, and be willing to let go of the status quo and change.   

The challenge is that organizations and institutions themselves can get in the way of this ability to respond to change. Institutions have a tendency to protect turf and sustain themselves, even if it is to the detriment of the community or their own members (e.g., the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal.) Hierarchical top-down organizations often don’t capture and connect the best thinking and innovative ideas of all their members. They can produce fragmented work, a focus on narrow metrics while losing sight of negative consequences, and create power dynamics that mean some voices are listened to while others aren’t and some departments talk to others, while others don’t.  

Recognizing the shortcomings of hierarchical organizations, innovations are underway to organize work based in a paradigm of “living systems,” with self-organizing teams and an adaptive innovative focus. One of the leading thinkers and practitioners of this way of working is Carol Sanford, who wrote The Regenerative Business. As a management consultant, for over 40 years, she has guided organizations to adopt a regenerative way of working. She defines as “the process by which people, institutions, and materials evolve the capacity to fulfill their inherent potential in a world that is constantly changing around them.” 

She will be the keynote speaker at the NHBSR’s conference this year.  Her latest book focuses on how we design work to intentionally develop people’s talents, while growing the ability of all people in a company to focus on the needs of customers and the changing environment. Sanford offers is a comprehensive way to build individual critical thinking skills and an organizational design to allow people and teams to create and contribute, aligned to the needs of the customer and larger community/environment. Her stories of how companies evolved and innovated in the face of change have helped me appreciate how crucial the design of how we work, and how we think, is to our collective ability to adapt and innovate in response to wake up calls.

Don’t miss your wake-up call!  Register for the conference today to learn how your company can dynamically innovate for changing conditions.