How can teams find innovative solutions to social responsibility and sustainability challenges? Part II

A sneak peek into some of the ideas behind Gaia Grant's planned PhD thesis with Sydney University School of Business “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.” Albert Einstein VIDEO THESIS INTERVIEW: Winner of the inaugural "Thesis Film Festival" - Sydney University, School of Business. Play video interview here > Looking for Part I of this article? Find it here > Rapid change and complex environments can lead to ambiguities. These ambiguities can then create significant tensions in organisations. The push towards the need for corporate responsibility and sustainability (e.g. through CSR initiatives) has resulted in specific tensions around developing social and environmental goals while simultaneously needing to make profit. These tensions can impact stakeholders at all levels. There is a clear need for organisations to build capabilities to enable people at all levels, inside and out, to deal with tensions such as these. Innovative new strategies and approaches are required that will enable more flexibility and adaptability to deal with the ambiguities. This study will utilise sensemaking as a theoretical lens for understanding and interpreting the impact of sustainability paradoxes on employees, and for identifying innovative new approaches to manage these paradoxes effectively. As the group is an important working unit of the organisation, the study will focus on collective sensemaking in the group context, which appears to be a gap in studies to date. The research methodology will be based on action research principles, which will involve active participation by the researcher in the sensemaking process and will therefore complement the general theoretical approach.


1) HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN THESE AREAS? Before I launch into the academic focus I’d like to give a quick personal context to my research. My undergraduate degree focused on psychology and education because I was interested in exploring how to engage and empower people for positive action. For the first 10 years of my working life I worked in the education and NFP sector, particularly with developing health education and drug education programs in Asia and Central America, before I felt it was time to start a family and get a “real” job. My husband and I set up an organisational learning and development consultancy, and shifted our focus to looking at group engagement in the context of the organisation - starting to work with big multinationals as well as in the NFP and education sector. It seemed we have to make a choice between purpose and profit, one or the other – but then I realised I could marry the both by focusing on CSR and sustainability programs in organisations. This has led to an interest in synthesising all three areas: corporate responsibility and the paradox or purpose and profit, along with group engagement. 2) HOW ARE YOU FRAMING THAT IN ACADEMIC JARGON? I’m looking into how to increase innovation and engagement in groups in dealing with challenging issues. I want to explore how to help groups come up with innovative solutions to apparently insurmountable challenges – particularly in relation to Corporate Social Responsibility issues. 3) WHY FOCUS ON PARADOX? Organisations have inherent tensions from contradictions and ambiguities – eg flexibility vs control, autocracy vs democracy, global vs local. Paradox is a great way of framing and understanding these tensions and identifying how to deal with them. 4) HOW IMPORTANT IS CORPORATE SUSTAINABILITY? Sustainable and socially responsible development is critically important for organisations today – and for our world in general. Sustainable development requires economic, social & environmental commitment – creates tension. I think if we’re going to do this we need to do it right. 5) WHY ARE INNOVATIVE APPROACHES NEEDED? Organisations are ill-equipped for thinking creatively – yet we need new systems to support new ways of thinking about issues. 6) WHAT IS THE RELEVANCE OF SENSEMAKING? Sensemaking is an established approach to understanding & interpreting organisational complexities & tensions. In this case the process will involve starting with the apparent ‘mess’, identifying the underlying ‘problem’ and the paradox behind it, then coming to a workable solution through exploring novel options. 7) WHY FOCUS ON GROUPS & COLLECTIVE SENSEMAKING? Work is often organised in groups, and there appears to be a gap in the literature on sensemaking in the group context (usually focuses on the individual context).
Gaia Grant is the Managing Director of Tirian and co-author of Who Killed Creativity? and How Can We Get it Back? (Wiley 2012). Gaia has has a BA Dip Ed, BD (hons), Grad Dip of Change Leadership, MSc in Creative Thinking, and is currently an MPhil / PhD (cand) in Innovation and Culture Change.

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