Eli MacLaren

Can Retail Leaders Make Systems Thinking Sexy?

I was asked to give a talk to the RILA (Retail Industry Leadership Association) Retail Sustainability Conference. Retailers, like all other industries, are facing a huge amount of uncertainty and change. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for those working in sustainability. My message focused on the behaviors leaders need in order to do transformational work in the face of a complex, uncertain future. 

My slides are below, but here is some of the accompanying narrative:

The story starts last Sunday, in the middle of the Montreal Marathon. I was excited to run and deliver a personal record at this marathon, but by mile 7, I was hurting. It was hot, I had started too fast. Every kilometer felt like a mile, and I was popping caffinated jelly beans to keep me going. At mile 10, the voice in my head clearly said:

You can't get there from here.

Not that I couldn't finish the marathon, I would finish. But I wouldn't finish strong; there would be no personal record. It would be months before I could try again. So I cut my losses and stopped running at the halfway mark. 

It was a discouraging, but excellent, decision. 

So why had I listened to that voice?

Because that message is a message I have learned to trust. 

Professionally, I grew up in the world of social entrepreneurs, and I played a relatively important role in defining and building “the field.” I worked at Ashoka, the organization that coined the term social entrepreneur. I built programs designed to help promising social entrepreneurs scale. I built new financial instruments to get capital moving into the sector. I helped start up one of the first crowdfunding platforms for social entrepreneurs. I helped foundations, governments, and corporations develop strategies for supporting social entrepreneurs.

And it was successful. But that success often bugged me. I was irritated by the idolization of social entrepreneurship, and more recently, of impact investing. As sexy as social entrepreneurship is, do we really think it’ll solve the complex challenges of our time? 

About 15 years ago, I also got involved in the women’s funding movement — the network of foundations with specific strategies around women and girls. First, I was a donor and volunteer. Then, I started engaging professionally with women’s funds, and finally, I served as the Executive Director of a small women’s foundation. If you’ve seen the Girl Effect, you know that investing in women and girls is a linchpin strategy for building stronger, more stable, more prosperous communities. It's also personal for me; I have two daughters, and I want them to be safe, secure, and equal — and as long as you're not living in a hole, you know that we still have work to do. 

But that nagging feeling returned; I began to wonder if it was too narrow, too siloed.

Then the voice got clearer:  

You can’t get there from here.

I realized that I was too focused on solutions when we needed an approach that better enables us to work in complexity and uncertainty. 

And that's how I got to the Business Innovation Factory — where we help leaders imagine, design, and test new business models. We believe that when you can transform a business model, you can transform a social system. Transforming business models, however, requires that leaders use a different set of behaviors. 

But before I get to those behaviors, I want to take a moment to differentiate transformation from disruption. 

Transformation is the recognition that the world is changing rapidly. 

Transformation is being prepared to lead in the face of change.

Transformation is the change we initiate.

Disruption is the force of change affected on us. 

So — these are the behaviors required to lead in the face of uncertainty:

Be Human-Centered

Explore the world around you. Gather inspiration from people and their experiences. Understand the job they need done, and imagine new value propositions to serve them in entirely new ways. DO NOT use the opportunity to validate your own ideas. This is the time to jumpstart new possibilities and your imagination.

Invite Stories

Stories help us understand how people experience the world. Stories help us also imagine how we get to a future state, and how people will react in it. Stories help pull people into new possibilities, and help them feel engaged.


Co-creation is the art of designing with a population and not just for a population. Co-creation deeply engages stakeholders, customers, and users. Co-creation results in more relevant models, building models that serve their needs and motivations. Finally, co-creation enables us to play with everyone's capabilities, and gives birth to infintely more possibilities.

Find the Gold in the Grey Space 

Transformation requires that we work horizontally, that we seek out and engage the unusual suspects. This enables us to see the connections across systems, silos and industries. But too often, we hang out with the usual suspects — people with similar job titles and roles. They can help us work within industry standards and norms, but they can't help do transformational work. 

Experiment All the Time

We need to try more stuff. In the face of uncertainty and complexity, we can't think our way out of problems. We can only act our way into knowing. We need to create the conditions to experiment in the real world, and get smarter, faster about learning what is working and what's not. We need to quickly recognize when we can't get there from here.

That's why I stopped running the marathon. I knew I couldn't get there from here, and I needed to try a different approach. I know to listen to that voice in my head, and to understand the message. And I have given myself permission to try, fail, and try again. 

As leaders, this is the greatest challenge: Can we create the conditions for trying transformational approaches? Can we carve out a safe space to try, fail, and tray again? 



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