In our glob­al world, many com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions are increas­ing­ly find­ing that their own inter­nal strate­gies need exter­nal stake­hold­ers in order to be most suc­cess­ful. But a dif­fer­ent addi­tive approach is to take a more pro-active lead­er­ship role with stake­hold­ers and cre­ate a pow­er­ful strat­e­gy togeth­er. From cor­po­rate to NGO to civic sec­tors, orga­ni­za­tions using a col­lab­o­ra­tive stake­hold­er or more sys­tem lead­er­ship approach­es can lead to mean­ing­ful con­sen­sus and ways for­ward on solv­ing what I call very com­plex prob­lems (and some call “wicked” prob­lems!). What works and why?

Most cor­po­rate sus­tain­abil­i­ty work requires sup­port from a broad­er set of stake­hold­ers. Peter Kim­mel, who leads the Col­lec­tive Lead­er­ship Insti­tute, frames stake­hold­er engage­ment between those that are con­sul­ta­tive (e.g. the final deci­sion on what hap­pens rests with the com­pa­ny) and those that are coop­er­a­tive (e.g. where a com­pa­ny is pre­pared to take joint action). For exam­ple, how to react to new reg­u­la­to­ry stan­dards, such as restric­tions on hydro­flu­o­ro­car­bons (HFCs), is a good exam­ple of con­sul­ta­tive stake­hold­er engage­ment with NGOs and oth­ers. In con­trast, the use and access to some nat­ur­al resources, such as water flows for a util­i­ty with hydro pow­er plants, often requires coop­er­a­tive approaches.

A dif­fer­ent and pow­er­ful lead­er­ship approach is to actu­al­ly cre­ate a vision and pro-active new poli­cies. Dur­ing 1994–96, I led a nation­al task force in the Clin­ton Admin­is­tra­tion to cre­ate the first sus­tain­able U.S. Nation­al Ener­gy Plan. This group com­prised 58 stake­hold­ers from across the coun­try, from indus­try, NGOs, aca­d­e­mics to gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives of dif­fer­ent agen­cies. Instead of only invit­ing poten­tial sup­port­ers to be involved, such as envi­ron­men­tal NGOs, I also invit­ed oppo­nents, such as the coal indus­try, to be at the table. Using a col­lab­o­ra­tive sce­nario plan­ning approach, we cre­at­ed four alter­na­tive futures over twen­ty years of how the U.S. ener­gy and trans­porta­tion land­scape might unfold. Using these sce­nar­ios, we were able to frame ele­ments of a broad sus­tain­abil­i­ty vision and key prin­ci­ples, such as acces­si­bil­i­ty and cost for low­er income groups. A broad­er def­i­n­i­tion of sus­tain­abil­i­ty helped many of the stake­hold­ers find more shared val­ues and be will­ing to agree on new poli­cies. Through an engag­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tive stake­hold­er approach, par­tic­i­pants were able to iden­ti­fy impor­tant poli­cies to sup­port as part of a new U.S. sus­tain­able Nation­al Ener­gy Plan that was unan­i­mous­ly sup­port­ed by Congress.

With indus­try, I worked with dif­fer­ent stake­hold­er lead­ers to cre­ate renew­able ener­gy shared prin­ci­ples, called the “Car­bon Prin­ci­ples.” One of the chal­lenges for sus­tain­abil­i­ty in finan­cial ser­vices was the need to amend financ­ing stan­dards for sup­port­ing more renew­able ener­gy pow­er financ­ing guide­lines. By fram­ing and agree­ing on defin­ing the prob­lem around renew­able ener­gy financ­ing, we were able to dis­cuss and agree on the final set of prin­ci­ples or guide­lines that banks could use for encour­ag­ing more renew­able ener­gy power.

For civic and nation­al com­plex prob­lems, col­lab­o­ra­tive stake­hold­er and sys­tem lead­er­ship approach­es are one of the only approach­es to find mean­ing­ful and last­ing solu­tions. In Guatemala, after 36 years of civ­il war, we were able to craft a new nation­al vision. In Colom­bia, after years of guer­ril­la war­fare, par­tic­i­pants real­ized that they had more in com­mon than sep­a­rate. In Mis­soula MT, cit­i­zens found that they could find new solu­tions to region­al growth that were more win:win than combative.

What are some impor­tant insights? First, iden­ti­fy­ing a good cross-sec­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tive par­tic­i­pants is key. With­out rep­re­sen­ta­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion, those not involved in the work may not sup­port the results. Sec­ond, focus on shared learn­ing, not just data! Every­one has their respec­tive exper­tise, but not all indi­vid­u­als, for exam­ple, under­stand Renew­able Port­fo­lio Stan­dards (RPS). It is impor­tant to dis­cuss and reach shared under­stand­ings to move for­ward togeth­er. And, final­ly, gen­uine dia­logue – not just debate – is crit­i­cal. The word dia­logue has its roots to mean “come to shared under­stand­ings” ver­sus debate’s roots are “to be beat down.”

In today’s more com­plex and chal­leng­ing world, col­lab­o­ra­tive stake­hold­er and sys­tem lead­er­ship approach­es need to be part of an organization’s toolk­it. These approach­es are chal­leng­ing to orga­nize, but the pos­i­tive results can be much more that ever imagined.