Learning - the heart of change
At ISF, our stated mission is to create change.
The beating heart of creating change is learning – and that means being open to learning, developing new processes that allow for improved learning, identifying the key characteristics of change on personal and sectoral levels, and recognising the value of diversity in facilitating learning.
Sectoral change was the subject of a keynote presentation by Distinguished Professor Cynthia Mitchell, at the recent Aluminium Stewardship Initiative global Annual General Meeting, held in Western Australia.
People are at the heart of resource stewardship. Whether it involves aluminium, water, energy or metals, resource stewardship focuses on ensuring future generations’ ability to access and benefit from social, economic and ecological resources.
Distinguished Professor Mitchell reflected on her experience in the water and infrastructure sectors to identify and connect four core tenets that underpin learning our way towards sustainable futures:
- Learning is at the heart of creating change – beyond “us educating them”, and towards learning collaboratively with the aim of moving forward together
- Change is about leadership – the will and ability to do things differently, and being brave in the face of resistance and challenges
- Diversity is key to sectoral change
- Deep change is deeply personal
First, change and learning are intrinsically connected – when we do something differently, we change, and we learn. If we don’t learn, we don’t change.
Learning requires humility and openness – when we encounter a disjunction (that is, when something we observe or experience does not fit with our mental model), research shows that our first response, especially as an adult, is typically to ignore it, to ‘paper’ over it.
This response has deep implications for workplaces, organisations, institutions and sectors.
The CLARA learning model provides a different direction. Developed by Professor Ruth Deakin-Crick from UTS and the University of Bristol, CLARA focuses on learning power, building humility and openness to learning through strengthening self-directed change by assessing “resilient agency” – the capacity of an individual to respond effectively to learning and change.
Openness to learning and change, and a positive orientation to the processes which allow for emergence and failure is vital.
This openness is especially vital at the leadership level, where change lives or dies. Distinguished Professor Mitchell draws on the example of the highly regulated and typically risk-averse water industry, which historically only invests occasionally, and generally in large assets, such as a new dam or desalination plant. Australia’s Millenium Drought was a very challenging and confusing period for the sector’s leadership and its associated politicians, with tens of billions invested in desalination plants around the country, most of which now lay idle at an ongoing cost to customers.
The water sector has learned that a shift is required, away from what we know now to be well-intended but false notions of providing certainty and security, towards resilience and adaptive planning. ISF pioneered this work in Australia, developing a planning and decision-making framework, in 2012 with all four water utilities in Melbourne, showed that saving billions of dollars was possible by taking a stewardship approach, investing in local recycling and demand management wherever the opportunity arose.
Hunter Water and other leading utilities now recognise that attempting to reduce risk by increasing certainty will fail – instead, they are actively managing uncertainty by learning their way forwards with communities.
Difference is a vital trigger for learning and change. That means not only making sure the room is filled with diverse voices but also approaching engagement with staff or stakeholders or customers or communities with curiosity and openness, using tools like Three Horizons and systems thinking.
Finally, at the core of learning deeply lies our worldview. Worldviews are fundamental to our very way of being – so fundamental that we tend not to notice them. So, whilst they help us make sense of and act on our daily experience, they also filter out many things, inadvertently acting against considering and implementing change.
To make change meaningful, likely we need to do something a little uncomfortable: notice and reflect on our worldviews and their influence on our actions, and respectfully and actively challenge and be challenged by the worldviews of others. For those in leadership positions, this is especially important.
Learning is at the heart of change, and therefore at the heart of leadership. It’s difficult, but being open-minded helps, as do various tools and processes, including cross-sector learning for all those interested in resource stewardship.