We were at an intensive workshop on sustainability in 2013 ago with Sara Schley. She turned to me and said, ‘Eileen, they need you to commit to this’ I stood up and said, ‘Yes, we have to do this!’ That was a turning point for me and for the company. As seemingly impossible as it was, it was utterly the right thing to do! We’ve never looked back.”
— Eileen Fisher, Founder and CEO, EILEEN FISHER

At Seed Systems we’ve been helping industry leaders and major corporations facilitate thoughtful, targeted, and impactful change for more than two decades.

I want to make one thing clear: There’s no magic formula. No secret sauce. Systems change never happens the same way twice, and yet… we have seen certain strategies work time and again to activate our clients around the changes they want to see for themselves and their businesses. 

We’ve honed our systems approach to 11 key steps to radical innovation, which we affectionately call our ABCs (accelerated, bold change). We look at an organization as a complex and evolving system and map actionable steps, ranging from ideation and visioning to partner engagement, learning, and reflection. 

But even with this model in place, it can be difficult to visualize the experience for yourself. How might systems change work for your leadership style, your unique vision, and the challenges your employees face?

The best way to illustrate what’s possible is to share a real-world example of hard work, vulnerability, and success: The Eileen Fisher story

The client: A pioneering sustainable clothing label strives to set itself apart

Eileen Fisher’s celebrated sustainability story Vision2020 isn’t just about the iconic leader, the visionary employee, the conscious customer or the ethical supplier. It’s about how the entire system came together to create something better than any one of us could do alone. This is a story of the transformation of a business from several disconnected parts to a single, living, regenerative entity.

The frame: Sustainability and the freedom of nonlinear thinking

Einstein once said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” 

And yet, for the past 500 years or so of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve created commerce as outlaws from nature. The structure has been linear instead of cyclical. Take, make, waste. Extract, use, and throw away. Except there is no waste in nature, we’ve learned. There is no “away” on this planet. 

For the survival of our species the take-make-waste linear model, unnatural as it is, has got to go. And be replaced by the cyclical, systemic, interdependent example of nature. Nature, who has been successfully modeling this experiment of sustaining life for the past 3.5 billion years. We could learn something from such a stellar teacher. 

The process: Applying the 11 steps to activate Eileen Fisher’s strategic vision

Here is an overview of how, in consultation with Seed Systems, a team of decision-makers from Eileen Fisher co-created a vision for the organization’s future using a systems change approach. 

1. Articulating a shared vision
Q: What do you want to happen?
A: Decided to go to an off-site workshop with Seed Systems for a shared visioning exercise to achieve “Vision 2020: Stretch goals in all 8 riverbanks” 

Note: Riverbanks are what we at Seed Systems call social and environmental goals. Naming what can too often feel like an abstract concept of “impact” after a naturally occurring form helps it feel tangible and vital. The term is a metaphor for the sturdy banks of a river that prevent destructive floods while allowing the current to flow with power. 

By setting goals, Eileen and her team of 20 other decision-makers were primed for understanding and action. 

2. Current reality
Q: What’s happening now?
A: A disconnect or slippage between baseline metrics and vision in 2013. 

3. Identify the gap between your current reality and your vision:
A: What is the energy that powers your change?
Q: To close the gap between existing metrics and desired outcomes. EX: To achieve 100% organic cotton fabrics in production.

4. Name the variables in the system
Q: What are the drivers for change?
A: Using organic cotton as the example: Internal factors including designer buy-in, materials sourcers buy-in, etc. and external factors like building relationships with organic farmers and other key stakeholders. 

By acknowledging places where they were not yet meeting their vision, the team could now map their organization as a system and identify places for transformational change.

5. Map the system
Q: How will you bridge the gap between your audacious vision and your day-to-day?
A: Co-create a systems map—a shared visual that allows all stakeholders to see and understand the system and see their part in the unique and powerful place in that system, thus allowing them to see the potential power of their actions to make change. 

The designer sees how her design choices influence the use of organic materials. The materials sourcer sees how she is responsible to build relationships with organic sources, and the CEO sees how her inspiration, leadership and policies are essential to making this work. 

6. Find your biggest “bang for the buck”
Q: Where on your system map can you leverage change most effectively
A: Everyone can agree on “high leverage” priority actions that emerge from the system. EX: To reduce carbon footprint, the highest leverage by far was to switch from air shipments to sea shipments. And this paradigm shift involves just about everybody in the company.

7. Set priorities
Q: What two or three actions will you take at each leverage point to move toward your vision?
A: In the case of moving from air to sea shipments, comprehensive analysis of business planning processes will be an important next step.

Now that Eileen and team had identified key leverage points, they could begin the work of the work: Asking for help, trying new things, and reflecting on the process along the way. 

8. Engage partners
Q: Who are the key stakeholders needed now to take action?
A: Business planners, account managers, key customers, the C-suite, and more. 

9. Change the world!
Q: Are you ready to make this happen?
A: Go out there and do it! Take action and experiment to find what works.

10. Measure, reflect, and learn
Q: How can you meaningfully measure your progress?
A: Set up a sustainability metrics team responsible for measurement, analysis, and feedback to all key stakeholders. This served as a key tool for learning, tweaking processes, and changing course as needed.

11. Celebrate and renew
Q: What are you grateful for?
A: An essential step to radical innovation and systems change initiatives that is often forgotten: take time to celebrate, acknowledge each other and be grateful! This work is a marathon not a sprint, and we need to recharge and renew our energy along the way. 

Specific rituals around celebration for the Sustainability Design Team included: Standing ovations for folks doing great things. Chocolate. Putting on some music and dancing out the tension. Getting outside to reconnect with nature to remember why we’re doing this in the first place. 

And there you have it! I hope this outline helps you imagine how you and your team might engage with me to solve your next intractable challenge and get a few steps closer to your vision. You can read the full Eileen Fisher sustainability journey in this free downloadable guide

I’ll leave you with a quote from Elieen Fisher herself, reflecting back on the work after it was all said and done. (But really, the work is never done, is it? And that’s the beauty of it!)

“We were at a workshop on sustainability 7 years ago with Sara Schley. She turned to me and said, ‘Eileen, they need you to commit to this’ I stood up and said, ‘Yes, we have to do this!’ That was a turning point for me and for the company. As seemingly impossible as it was, it was utterly the right thing to do! We’ve never looked back.”