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How is sustainability framed in organisations? How do alternative framings enable or inhibit action on sustainability challenges? It seems the research we carried out five years ago at Ashridge is as relevant, if not more so, today. The questions we pose still fresh. Of the 24 organisations we spoke to, from Unilever and M&S, to Natural England and Sainsbury, the majority are doing more than ever to blaze a trail for sustainable business. Interesting those who appear to have struggled (mentioning no specific names here) seem to have started with more of an ‘avoidance of harm’ framing than an ‘exciting opportunity to innovate’ one, or even a ‘this is just good business’ one. But I don’t want to generalise too much.

What’s most notably changed is that the appreciation of the complexity of sustainability issues – particularly the systemic interdependencies between them – is compelling efforts to collaborate across organisational boundaries as never before. The publication of the SDGs is directing businesses’ attention to their core purpose and encouraging new more socially purposeful business models that address the issues the SDGs highlight – poverty, water and sanitation, energy, oceans, education and so on.

All of which makes the heart of the Talik systems change model – the work of sense-making and reframing – more figural than ever. Because without the fundamental dialogic work of seeking to understand other viewpoints, values and mental models, we cannot hope to find common ground from which to design collective endeavours.

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