Sensemaking: For system change to succeed, someone has to risk going first

I’ve been lucky enough to work with the wonderful Dina Epifanova, Head of Sustainability at Tetra Pak and her team in Moscow. Here she shares a how system change tools and mind-sets are giving her more muscle where it matters.

Why is system change valuable to you?

If you want to make a real step change in sustainability, addressing complex social and economic issues, you need to have a strategic mindset and work cross-borders. Influencing factors in our globalizing world goes far beyond a local or isolated context. To succeed in this environment, we need to adopt and use a systematic approach in our daily routine.

When you use system change frameworks, you harness greater potential and leverage to reshape the things of concern. To give an example, I applied the framework of ‘Landscape, Regime and Niche’ levels of system change to our recycling development challenge. This brought new perspectives: for instance, at the landscape level, we looked at whether the communities were ready to implement separate waste collection. Earlier, we had considered it as a communications task to engage people with new ways of treating their household waste: challenging and potentially expensive in terms of effort and investment, but still manageable. With the ‘landscape level’ lens, we realized it is not that simple: you need to consider whether communities wish to change their habits. This is not a manageable object, but a variable one, that influences and even determines the probability of your success in change management here. So, now, when analyzing where we should start deploying separate waste collection in Moscow, we compare the districts, based on their communities’ readiness to sort out waste. We have some data, available from waste management companies, that reveals where there is a lot of potential, due to the social characteristics of the given population. 

I also had an unexpected and valuable insight: just how much attention a system changer should ideally pay to his own role and personal development as the driver of the change. This has brought me to another level of self-reflection and system change capability. I’ve also found this useful for other spheres, such as self life-coaching. 

I believe corporates should start a more decisive walk towards this kind of knowledge and skills.

How else does system change feature in your work today? 

Being Head of Sustainability at Tetra Pak, I face system challenges in three major areas: climate change commitments, Forest Stewardship Council-certification deployment, and post-consumer waste recycling. For all of these challenges, we can no longer afford to create ‘faster horses’ – to refer to Henry Ford’s metaphor: we absolutely need new ways of moving forward.

 

 How does Tetra Pak approach system change?

At Tetra Pak, we realise very well that the modern world is changing rapidly, and we have consciously focused on change management capabilities and tools. System change complements this approach, and is crucial to meeting our sustainability goals.

The first thing on the agenda today is to actively search for the right allies to drive environmental issues at full speed. Our indisputable benefit here is our long-term approach, which has been always in the company DNA. Our Scandinavian corporate culture complements our sustainability efforts. We are ready to lead the process, rather than wait for requests from our customers or consumers. To achieve success in any systemic change, someone needs to take a risk and become a moving force to lead the process of change.

 What is the appetite for system change in the regions where you work?

The level of societal maturity affects the appetite and need for system change and a sustainability agenda. I work in the markets of Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia. Here, a company seeking to advance sustainability faces two major challenges. One is that local markets and infrastructure are yet at the level of the advanced consumer when it comes to sustainability. A buyer can face frustrations when wanting to find out if a carton is FSC-certified or not, or find themselves pushing for separate waste collection.

On the other hand, now is a great time to push for this kind of change in the region, as most of these countries find themselves currently in big shifts. This means consumer mindsets are moving and prepared for the change, with sustainability no exception. 

 How ready do you feel various countries in the region are to embrace system change?

All countries here are now going through major historical system changes, in the scale of decades or even centuries. This, on the one hand, makes the societies quite adapted and ready for changes, but on the other, if recent changes were too painful, it can have an opposite effect, resulting in huge demand for stability.

We will see, for instance, in Ukraine – a country of believers in European values and political practices – readiness for change is high. In Russia, on the other hand, the changes that the country has gone through in the recent decades were so painful that the majority of the population is keen to keep stability.

The paradox is that years of rather short-term decisions, especially in economics, have brought Russia to the point where system change is critically needed to keep any equilibrium: without it, wider changes will inevitably catch the country unprepared.

 What ways forward do you see for Russia? 

Even though the appetite for system change here is the lowest in the region discussed, you can nevertheless easily find two powerful sources of system change here. The first is the government: the political elite understands clearly the need for change – satellites fall down, weapons are not that good, economic reserve has been used and eaten, political ideas have up short too: take Syria for instance. As in Mikhail Korostikov’s “honey-badger doctrine” the current political strategy is very effective, but works for survival, not for growth.

The good news is that the government puts this need for change into action. One example is appointing a 35-year-old Maxim Oreshkin to be the Minister of Economic Development, with a personal assignment from Mr. Putin to implement effective KPI-based frameworks to raise the professional level of management and, if successful, to scale the practice to other ministries.

Another source of system change in Russia is the new generation, which hasn’t the trauma of the 1990s’ hunger and criminal years, and which now lives in the completely new reality of the digital world, with no sense of limitations. Any serious barrier that they will face later will be absolutely not understandable and not acceptable to them! These young and free-mind people will be big change drivers: we only need to wait some 10-15 years.

As Vladimir Trofimchuk, Trade Policy Department Consultant at Eurasian Economic Commission, puts it: each country of the former Soviet Union block is now shaping its national identity and has to refresh its understanding of its political allies. All of them are facing now changes in politics, economics and even religion (for instance, the rise of Islam in Azerbaijan). This is creating a different appetite for system change, depending on the specific situation in a separate country. What the different countries have in common is that the whole region is today in tectonic system change process and this is a huge opportunity knocking.

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