Synergy is counterintuitive
by Simon Divecha and Sandra Waddock
Simon’s story: Vladimir and I walk into Big Deal 2020’s conference dinner. It is an unlikely collaboration, the bohemian and the real estate tycoon. Regardless, we’ve been working together for a year creating Springlands Life, a housing development with a 70 percent smaller environmental footprint than most suburbs.
We are not going to lead with sustainability at this event—Big Deal’s participants are interested in money! And we will give them that. Springlands Life is cheaper than its competition. Our environmental successes involve less capital and slash the annual running expenses of standard homes. It is luxurious, cost-effective, living. It should sell…
Vlad knows this crowd. He is in his element. Big vision, extrovert, great company. Just the sort of person you want to be with at a black-tie, silver service formal, thousand people awards evening. Still, I take the offered glass of French champagne, dutch courage.
Vlad goes with beer and sweeps into introductions. We’ve planned this. Tell them what an amazing opportunity Springlands will be. Talk about the easy living, the great price, the big margins. If asked, mention the whole site and that homes use 70 to 90 percent less water, embodied and generated carbon emissions. People’s eyes tend to glaze over at those latter statistics.
Vlad leads. His first words are “we’re doing all these environmental things. It will cost us to go green. That’s ok we’re willing to cop that”.
I drop my champagne…
The stories we tell ourselves are very sticky as the experience with Vlad shows.
Springlands is a real story, anonymised here but the statistics and quotes are real. The cultural expectations from our peers, our communities and the society around us, are very strong. Fiction stronger than facts? Often.
Vlad’s reluctance to shift away from prevailing views shows the power of a story and dominant narratives. Dominant narratives like today’s economic thinking and its attention to financial imperatives above all else. People be damned. Environment be damned. Society be damned. These financial imperatives dominate the news—even in these troubled times of pandemic. The present-day, the ways that we think the world works, keep drawing us in regardless of evidence to the contrary.
Modern-day culture is strongly attractive—its ideas, norms and memes capture our psyches on a daily basis. Even when evidence shows success sourced from synergy—from delivering simultaneous environmental, social and economic benefits like the Murraylands project—we still fall back to the expected paradigms. We are drawn to trade-off competing interests against each other, environment at the expense of profit, growth versus health.
These money-oriented tradeoffs pose real problems as we face both climate and COVID-19 emergencies. Both collaboration and competition deliver results. However, we can’t answer our emergencies through individual success alone.
We know at some gut level that the solutions to these emergencies are inherently collaborative and that they involve human and nature-based values that go way beyond money. Yet, the idea that success comes from beating the competition by making more money, whatever the consequences, still predominate. When success is source by delivering for people, profit, planet and purpose, all at the same time, we tend to downgrade the relevance, the broad applicability, of these examples.