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Making sense of sustainability

Sustainability is complex – for Tina Karme, that is why it is filled with opportunities
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Tina Karme

This article first appeared in our International Women’s Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 08 March 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Forget what the critics might say: what if sustainability and other complex issues are not about bad people making bad decisions, and instead about many people struggling to make sense of complex, intertwined challenges?

This is the conclusion of Tina Karme, whose recently published Doctoral thesis at Luxembourg’s European Business University focuses on sensemaking and sensebreaking in complexity.

While many focus on bad decisions and finding a guilty party to blame, Tina’s research look at how actors make sense of complex issues and the decisions that follow on from that process.

Making sense of the world

According to Tina’s research, we are all continuously making sense of the world around us; first we try to work out what the story is and then we concentrate on what we are supposed to do about it – how we are supposed to act.

In a bid to make sense of what is going on at the time – or work out ‘the story’ – people talk things into existence.

Tina uses the example of the energy crisis in Europe. ‘It started as a dialogue and suddenly a story emerged that helped us to understand what was happening, how it impacted us and what we could do’, she tells us.

Once the story emerged, many quickly started considering what actions to take. We can see the result of this process; it had a big impact on the energy savings Europe was able to make during the winter of 2022-2023.

‘No one is ever 100% wrong’, Tina tells us, ‘but the stories we tell might differ as a result of how we make sense of the world around us. We need to move beyond right and wrong and show curiosity towards all the stories and ways of understanding the world. They play a big part in making sense of complex issues and all of them are needed.’

Breaking or bolstering sense

Tina’s research found that we have, for a long time, engaged with both simple and complicated issues.

‘There is a framework called the Cynefin Framework that focuses on five dimensions’, Tina explains; ‘Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaos and Disorder. Simple is the best-practice solution that most business runs on. Complicated presents several best options to choose from, and a team of experts usually develops them. Most of our leadership and business models are grounded in simple and complicated matters that can be managed. These issues have clear cause-effect relations, and things are known or knowable.’

But when it comes to sustainability issues, such as climate change and biodiversity, there are no clear or manageable cause-effect relations. ‘They are complex chains and webs of loops’, Tina explains. ‘There are many unknown factors and unknowable elements. This means that we operate in surroundings where patterns unfold as we move through time.’

In simple terms, things will emerge – but new ideas and solutions will only appear if we are open to them and can let go of old ways, patterns and ideas.

This is where it gets difficult: how do we let go of things that no longer serve us? Tina developed a process of sensemaking which shows that when our current ways of understanding the world are disrupted, it can lead to sensebreaking or the fortification of common sense.

‘Fortification of common sense means that you start defending your way of being, acting and understanding the world’, Tina tells us. ‘This often leads to focusing on who is right and wrong, and at times, it is very polarising. Nothing new will emerge from this; in fact, research is often used to strengthen what we think we know.’

For Tina what is needed is sensebreaking, which creates a gateway to new sense. ‘Sensebreaking means that our understanding of a specific thing falls apart’, she explains. ‘This creates a void that needs to be filled.’

Sensebreaking can be achieved in a number of ways, but for Tina the most important thing is that it should focus on talking new things into existence. Rather than relying on past knowledge and understanding, new trains of thought and new ideas need to emerge. This way, we innovate and develop – we ‘evolve’, as Tina puts it.

Avoiding tensions

Research on temporary sensemaking discusses three elements: prefigurative, configurative and refigurative sensemaking.

Prefigurative is grounded in things we already know, while configurative and refigurative sensemaking involve new things being talked about and acted into existence.

Configurative focuses on understanding the story, and can be informed by the future.

Research shows that the more inclusive we can be in the process of configurative sensemaking, the more efficient it will be as its purpose is to challenge assumptions.

However, these challenges create tensions. If tensions are not dealt with by tools other than dominance and compromise, nothing new can emerge.

Research suggests a third option, integration, as an alternative pathway for solving tension. As one person told Tina in her interviews, if a vegetarian and a meat producer make a compromise to put half a steak on the plate, that is not a solution.

Integration requires something completely new to emerge – an idea or solution that was not on the table at the start, and that satisfies both needs.

An inclusive approach in configurative sensemaking could create a space for the discovery of integrated solutions. ‘This is exactly what sustainability needs’, Tina explains. ‘When embracing complexity, we see multiple solutions instead of seeking one or two of the best solutions. If we give each fragment of the larger story equal value, we move towards integrated solutions.’

Configurative sensemaking is followed by refigurative sensemaking, which focuses on the actions that need to be taken in order for the story to become a reality.

‘What is important to understand is that we need to talk solutions into existence before we can act’, Tina says. ‘However, if we talk but nothing new emerges, do we really need those conversations?’

Asking good questions

Federico Magalini, a sustainability consultant from DSS+, sees both good and bad examples of how different actors talk and act things into existence.

In many cases, Federico accepts, the sustainability journey is not a linear or easy one. ‘We constantly see the need to decide on trade-offs’, he says. ‘We have witnessed an important breakthrough over the last five years; most companies now realise that the real transformation only happens when collaboration along the supply chain is established.’

The complexity of challenges related to the decarbonisation of a product is a good example; in most cases – particularly with the supply chain becoming more articulated – the role of scope 3 emissions is much more important to tackle.

‘The engagement of supplier upstream or client downstream is fundamental’, Federico explains. ‘Only an open dialogue and joint research of workable solutions, often leading to certain compromises or integrated solutions, can ensure the result is delivered.’

Federico uses the uptake of recycled content instead of virgin materials as an example. ‘It often requires the re-engineering of materials and maybe of production processes’, he says. ‘Therefore, cooperation between suppliers and multiple functions and departments of manufacturers becomes a true need and condition for success.’

For Tina, the combination of cooperation and conversation is crucial as it allows us to start talking about the future we want and then talk that future into existence.

‘We should not limit ourselves to the good answers we have today but focus more on good questions’, Tina says. ‘Answers follow questions. I have no doubt that new sense will create an awesome, sustainable future for all of us.’

About Tina Karme

Tina Karme is a Doctor of Business Administration with a Master of Science (M.Sc) degree from Finland in Business Management and a M.Sc degree from the UN Institute of Training and Research collaboration programme with Franklin University Switzerland on International Management and Sustainability.

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