essays & posts

Busting Corporate Myths in a Time of Climate Collapse

Paula Downey, downey youell associates

April 2 ∼ 5 minute read

To change the entire system we need everyone working on everything, everywhere, all at once.

Gustav Martner, Cannes Lions 2022

UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres

Image via The United Nations


By coincidence, two things dropped into my inbox on the same day.

The first was the IPCC’s bleak synthesis report, self-described as ‘a survival guide for humanity’.

The second was an invitation to tender for the delivery of a development programme to help the leaders of one of our key institutions lead differently in relation to its Net Zero strategy.

The IPCC report puts us on official notice that the living world is now lurching into apocalyptic territory.

In the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, “Our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once.”

The tender document is a case study in why we’ve arrived at this perilous place.

Purpose Disruptors

The Slide Rule creates the illusion of control.

Image by Charles at Pixabay

The Tyranny of the Slide Rule

Actually, it’s not a tender document. It’s a P.Q.Q. — a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire.

The first two pages describe the programme’s purpose. On the surface, it looks good.

The next fifty pages — yes, fifty — are what I call The Slide Rule. A bureaucratic hoop-jumping exercise to pre-qualify applicants who can then bid for the contract, which will be awarded to the MEAT (Most Economically Advantageous Tender).

(I kid you not!)

As it happens I once knew this organisation intimately.

Thirty years ago, before internal communication departments were conceived, our small company held the contract for its internal media and communication work. We were part of the generation of practitioners who invented an entirely new discipline and today there isn’t a respectable mid-sized company without an internal comms function.

That’s a real-world example of innovation in organisational development.

I remember our work with this organisation as a graced professional experience. We had the freedom to respond creatively, often rewriting the brief when our research showed they’d identified the wrong problem or the wrong solution.

Our client-side relationship was with a stellar Corporate Affairs Manager and trusted advisor to the two standout CEOs we dealt with during that period. He was a man of integrity with the self-confidence to make space for creativity. He was also professionally brave, willing to trust his gut — and us — and protect the creative process from the worst impacts of bureaucracy.

The result was multi-award-winning work that made a real difference.

The Power of Professional Courage

Now, here’s the thing. When we met him we had just set up our little company and he was our first real client. We were completely broke, with no track record of our own.

But he sat in our newly painted office on our brand new couch, watched a show reel of our previous work, listened to our passionate pitch about creativity and communication, and gave us a chance.

For a decade our work flourished, until the iron grip of The Slide Rule and the hollowing-out effects of the profit-first motive loomed over all of us.

Disillusioned by the ego-driven, bottom-line focused leadership he saw coming down the tracks, he closed the door on a twenty-five year career and baled out, while we chose not to reapply for a contract now in safe bureaucratic hands.

Advertising is driving the consumption that’s driving climate change

The Slide Rule assumes that organisations work like machines. 

Image by Pavlo at Pixabay

Domesticating an Emergency

The P.Q.Q. tells me we made the right decision. The Slide Rule is in the driving seat. The machine has won. And not just in this organisation.

Because what’s remarkable about this document is how unremarkable it is.

It’s a fifty page rejection of reality and a living example of why we’re in such deep, deep trouble.

Everything about it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of how life really works and how change really happens.

It assumes that organisations work like machines, organised and controlled from the top down.

It assumes that leadership capacity and organisational intelligence is vested in particular positions and the individuals who hold them.

It assumes that change is incremental, linear, predictable and measureable.

Above all, it creates the illusion of ‘safety’ — but of course nothing is more dangerous than denying reality.

It’s designed to maintain B.A.U. (Business As Usual) and attract O.P.J.L.U. (Other People Just Like Us) practically ensuring that the worldview, assumptions and practices that have taken the living world to the brink remain blissfully undisturbed.

It’s a virtual case study in the root cause of our many-headed crisis and the near-complete corporate domestication of what we now routinely call our ‘climate emergency’ without a shred of angst.

fractal evolutionary change

Evolution isn’t linear or incremental. Movements move!

Image by Gerd Altmann at Pixabay

We Need a Movement

The myth that we can stage-manage our way through this poly-crisis is part of the crisis. Yet another symptom of its root cause.

Conventional top-down, linear, incremental strategies are wholly inadequate responses to whole-system, nonlinear, wicked issues that will simply never yield to this way of working.

This moment is called ‘an emergency’ for a reason. To change the entire system we need everyone working on everything, all at once. Nothing short of a movement for change

We need large scale collaboration around dilemmas that no institution can address alone.

We need brave spaces and brave people willing to unleash the human capacity stifled inside organisational machines everywhere and empower people to take risks, allow them to fail and support them as they learn how to change the whole system — not on training courses, but in their everyday nine-to-five work, where our decisions are now determining the destiny of an entire planet.

This moment is called ‘an emergency’ for a reason. To change the entire system we need everyone working on everything, everywhere, all at once. Nothing short of a movement for change.

The bridge between the inevitable collapse of our current system under the weight of business-as-usual and a much better version of the future, is us.

We either walk mindfully and deliberately into a new era of cultural and organisational innovation — driven by shared questions, not false answers — or we perish.

Imagine what we might unleash if we had the courage to develop our people and our organisations for a very different purpose, in a totally different way.


This article was first published in The Sunday Independent


Paula Downey is senior partner at  CultureWork© and co-creator of The Climate Action Sprint. She has a Masters in Responsibility and Business Practice and she writes and speaks on the challenges and opportunities of whole system change.


Now and then we observe the world through the lens of living systems and our CultureWork perspective.

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