REFLECTIONS: Reports from the 2011 Net Impact Conference (Part 3)

Please welcome guest blogger, Ari Goldmann, as he shares with Strategic Sustainability Consulting readers his reflections from the 2011 Net Impact Conference in Portland, OR.

Day 3

A while ago I mentioned to a friend that I was going to be visiting her hometown of Portland.  The conversation went something like this:

Me:  I’m going to Portland next week!

Friend:  That’s great!  Why are you going?

Me:  There’s this really cool conference…

Friend:  So you’ll be going to the hotel and the convention center, not Portland.

Me:  Oh.  Right.

I immediately recalled the lesson I learned when I went to my first work-related convention a number of years ago.  Conferences – these alluring sirens of the white-collared world – possess a coldly ironic sense of humor.  They beckon you to vibrant far-away places, only to shutter you inside cavernous, monochromatic, windowless convention centers.  Only on Sunday evening do they relinquish their grasp, releasing you to their sinister co-conspirator, the airport food court. 

This ghastly realization notwithstanding, I was excited.  Net Impact understands that inspiration does not exist within a vacuum.  Portland’s vitality is fueled by its people and places; Net Impact expanded the conference’s reach beyond the convention center’s walls to include a taste of what makes this city unique. 

Above all, people are nice here.  Cab drivers, waiters, police officers, even public transit announcements – they are all so…nice.  Now, I realize the fact that I was exposed to a very narrow slice of the city, but the more I spoke with people – conference attendees and locals alike – the more I was aware of an undercurrent of joie de vivre permeating the city and its inhabitants.  People bike everywhere, take great pride in their local (and, in many cases, sustainably produced) beer and wine, appreciate the abundance of trees and proximity of vast expanses of nature, and frequent restaurants that source their fare from nearby farms.

An inspiring setting for an inspiring conference, indeed. 

Sustainability is about identifying opportunities for conservation, efficiency, conscientious resource allocation, and responsible growth.  Fledgling social impact endeavors succeed when they pair collective bricolage with individual breakthroughs, and creativity with optimism.  They are most compelling when they reduce environmental impact and bolster the bottom line.  The city of Portland seems, to this outsider at least, to espouse these principles. 

I held these observations in the front of my mind as I entered the Portland Convention Center on the last day of the conference.  I believe that people, and by extension the systems in which they operate, are more enthusiastic, productive, and valuable when they relentlessly strive to identify strengths rather than weaknesses.  The increasing popularity of positive thought in corporate change implementation and management processes seems to support this belief.  Approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry, which focuses on strengths and engages a company’s entire workforce, are particularly useful for organizations pursuing sustainability initiatives.  The final session of the conference, a workshop on reframing problems, addressed this very subject. 

Mastering the art of reframing problems is the first step towards forming breakthrough solutions.  Reframing is particularly critical for social entrepreneurs and business professionals who want to design products, services, and processes that deliver both profitability and positive social and environmental impacts. 

The panel encouraged us to think of an everyday problem – say, a long line at the post office – and approach it from a different perspective.  For example, the engineer behind you in line might see inefficiencies in the way customers are attended to, and seek to reengineer the entire process.  The tourist in front of you might be accustomed to routinely long lines in his home city, and think this wait is short in comparison.  The entrepreneur who just walked through the door might view the line as a business opportunity; perhaps he can set up a kiosk to sell products to customers as they wait.

You get the idea.  This process forces people to actively uncover opportunities hidden within problems.  Whether you strive to shift your perspective like the postal customers in the above example, or engage in an inclusive strengths-based analysis exercise such as Appreciative Inquiry, a comprehensive understanding of the problem is essential before you can identify solutions. 

As influential writer, management consultant, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Peter Drucker said, “Every single social and global issue of our day is a business opportunity in disguise.”

The success of the Net Impact Conference, and the sustainability movement itself, is the result of individuals, inspired by moral and business imperatives, advocating for social and environmental action.  This is the very essence of problem reframing, and it is in practice by the attendees at this conference and by people all over the world. 

So it turns out my friend was wrong about my trip to Portland.  I was not shackled to a relentless conference agenda.  Instead, with a vivacious, thriving city as my backdrop, I saw the opportunities that lie ahead of me, and the limitless potential of the sustainability movement.  The conference did not hold me prisoner – it freed me to be inspired. 

Ari is a 2012 MBA Candidate at American University’s Kogod School of Business in Washington DC.  He was SSC’s Marketing & Communication Intern last summer.