Posted by: genevievetaylor | July 22, 2010

Collaborating Effectively to Advance Sustainability – Solutions Labs 2010

On July 15, I participated in the Solutions Lab, held at eBay in San Jose, led by good friend Odin Zackman of DigIn, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Ashoka.  What a provocative, refreshing day.

The day was organized as a modified “unConference”. Odin said that morning that “during conferences, the best parts are usually during the coffee breaks.  So, we decided to make a whole day of coffee breaks!”  The day was truly geared to allow us talk with one another, and it was wonderfully stimulating to have a chance to really talk to the professionals, experts, and activists in the room.

I participated as a facilitator during the morning for a session loosely called “Collaborating Effectively to Advance Sustainability.” A small and dynamic group of 8 attended, representing innovative social enterprises and non-profits as well as companies you have heard about on Fast Company and Forbes.   During our hour and a half together, discussion was surprisingly heated and unsurprisingly fast-paced.

The discussion centered around:

  1. Is collaboration happening in the field of sustainability?
  2. What are some best practices for achieving collaboration in sustainability?
  3. What are the barriers to collaboration – why do companies collaborate, and why DON’T they collaborate?

One trend that all of us noted is that sustainability was actually leading to a lot of formal and informal collaboration.  Anecdotally, participants spoke of sustainability managers who reached out to other managers to solve micro to macro problems – from what kind of disposables to use, to how do they help company culture change from disposables entirely. It seems that sustainability cuts across normally competitive barriers.

Participants also noted that a leading barrier was also a leading incentive – organizations must be able to see the value and relationship of sustainability to their own work. If they don’t see that, the initiative will fail.  If they do, then the possibilities are vast.

And that leads us to one of the key best practices – find the “hook.” We turned to the Open Source movement, which seemed to have a quite compelling hook.  In Open Source, thousands of developers from around the world contributed to creating an Open Operating System for their computers.  Why would developers spend countless hours to develop this operating system together?

It all boiled down to two things: Freedom, and Combating the Evil Empire.  Developers wanted to be able to design/control/play in the net, and it just was not possible with the Microsoft Operating System.  They also saw Microsoft as doing everything it could to prevent other Operating Systems from entering the market.  By creating Open Source, they could cleverly defeat both those problems.  A unique and tremendously high-impact collaboration was born.  Our conclusion – hooks may not always be financial, but they do tie into the values of those who are collaborating.  For an organization, collaboration will likely be most effective if it yields gains in efficiency, efficacy, market outreach – all things tied to the company’s survival.

As a side bar, I would add that for the people inside the organization, the hook must be more personal – it must tap into their fundamental values as well.  Hopefully, the collaboration matches with the organization’s values.  But if not, the champion must strategize for how to meet both.

Other best practices were discussed as well – including finding the right people to both lead and facilitate, creating a shared goal, etc.  Take a look at the wiki with the extensive notes (including some great references for collaboration in Sustainability) below.

Collaborating Effectively to Advance Sustainability – SJ – Solutions Labs 2010.

My thanks to Peggy Liu of JUCCCE, who helped me think through my approach to facilitating this topic, and who would have helped lead the discussion had she not been in China (time zones are such drag!)


  1. found your site on today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

  2. Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the article! Genevieve

  3. Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

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