Transformational and incremental change – a false dichotomy?

By Joss Tantram

Change had not died out. It was only Change that had changed. The New was coming into fashion and beyond the common understanding of the world.” H. G. Wells

As sustainability practitioners, we often have to juggle two sometimes conflicting ambitions. Firstly, we need to stimulate sustainable change based upon where we are now, and secondly, we need to play a part in imagining and creating more fundamentally sustainable approaches.

Over the past few years there has been a significant focus on the idea of transformational change. This is based upon a judgement that incremental change is neither ambitious nor fast enough to cope with the scale of the sustainability challenges that we all face.

Although the idea of transformation appeals, I have a practical problem with the agenda. While it may suit companies which revel in disruptive change, other companies with more conventional business models find that the idea of ‘transformation’ simply feels impossible. It is a bit like telling a life-partner or friend that they should ‘transform’ themselves. It’s an easy request to make of a caterpillar but not of a human, we are capable of change, but we are also essentially always ourselves (as of course is also a caterpillar/chrysalis/butterfly).

The dichotomy between incremental and transformative change is also not particularly clear. It is possible for a company to set itself on a pathway of incremental performance improvement that soon adds up to a transformational change. For instance, a commitment of 10% year on year carbon reduction adds up to significant net reduction over 5 years…. Is this incremental or transformational change…or simply both?

Transformation...a journey, a destination...or both?

Incrementalism and transformation are often seen as divergent paths yet they may actually be the long and short-term outcomes of the same journey. The difference is the intended destination – if the destination for a sustainability strategy (for example) is transformative for a company’s product offering, business model and resource relationships, then incremental steps towards that goal are just small bites of a big ambition.

There are a vast number of examples of serious, significant change in both the approach and role of business in tackling sustainability challenges.

  • Multi stakeholder commodity chain sustainability approaches which seek to understand and respond to the strategic threats faced by particular raw materials.
  • Long term sustainability ambition rooted in a clear-sighted analysis of sustainability context and global mega-trends which articulate a pathway of radical change (such as WBCSD’s Vision 2050 and our client Elopak’s FutureProof 2020 Strategy).
  • Science based carbon targets and the growing acknowledgement that global limits and global targets such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals should frame company ambition in sustainability.
  • Fundamental reconceptualisations of the very basis of production systems such as the circular economy, industrial ecology and Cradle-to-Cradle.
  • Innovation at the bleeding edge of science, technology and imagination, based partly upon the direct application of nature’s technology (biomimicry), but also focused upon the creation of technologies, some of which exist and some of which might.

Seeding fertile ground

The seeds of sustainability actually lie all around us, the task we face is finding the means to create the fertile ground which they require to thrive.

We believe that not only is a sustainable future conceivable, but that it is also possible to adapt and use a number of approaches that are currently part of conventional business practice.

Together with other big ideas for a sustainable future, these approaches are at the heart of our Towards 9 Billion series of short, accessible, e-Books.

The books are available (each is the price of a not hugely expensive coffee) from the Amazon Kindle Store.

Pioneers for Change is a seed-bed for innovative thought. An activator of personal potential. A catalyst for collective energy. A community to drive social change. Pioneers for Change is an initiative of Adessy Associates.

Adessy Associates believes social and business objectives are mutually reinforcing. We equip organisations with sustainability / social responsibility strategy, management and communications. We focus on benefit for people, planet and profit, with bespoke services that harness sustainability, innovation, consciousness and purpose. We are proudly B Corp certified.

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About Joss Tantram

Joss Tantram is a founding partner at Terrafiniti LLP, a pioneering sustainability and systems consultancy. Joss Tantram is an expert in sustainable strategy, reporting and management, with 20 years’ experience in the private and not-for-profit sectors in the UK, Europe and world-wide.

Joss leads Terrafiniti's strategic services and their innovation initiative, Towards 9 Billion.

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