Systems thinking is sustainability, says Miriam Turner

Sensemaking / Systems thinking is sustainability, says Miriam Turner

07 Jul 2011

Miriam Turner, Innovations Director Europe, Middle East, Africa and India at InterfaceFLOR, talks about shifts in sustainability, her own career to date, and the astonishing potential of even eleventh-hour ideas.

Class of: 2003–04
Currently: Innovations Director Europe, Middle East, Africa and India at InterfaceFLOR

Why I chose the MProf
It was actually Alastair Sawday [publisher of Special Places to Stay] who told me about the course years ago. After my first degree, I had worked for Arcandina, an educational charity in Ecuador which uses a cartoon series about animals on an ark to raise awareness of sustainability and wildlife conservation. Then I went to India to co-write one of Sawday's books, and did my interview for the Masters course from there. What I liked about it was the opportunity to dip your toe into other sectors and see where you could make the most change.

What I learnt
When you're working with people across sectors, you have to recognise that everyone has their own language and their own motives. They vary greatly from a non-profit to a business. So it's important to be able to translate. I saw my role as the 'glue' between different sectors, helping them to meet and stick together. Making those connections enables change to happen – it's a real skill in sustainability. It was also a huge privilege to go to the Leadership Trust so early on in my career. That's where I learnt about the importance of seeing so-called failure as a learning experience, a means to success in itself.

Career to date
I was offered a short-term contract for InterfaceFLOR in India – and I'm still with the company seven years later! I went out to India initially to ask big, open questions, like how you can create a product that has both a social and environmental story to tell. I worked with all sorts of different stakeholders – the design community, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and non-profits. I drew massively on the facilitation skills I'd learnt on the Masters course. One group I convened came up with FairWorks – the new [fair trade] business model for modular carpet tiles. It was a great idea, but turning it into a commercial reality was really difficult.

Since then, I've gone from coordinating innovation projects, to managing them, to directing them. I could never have guessed it would take me this far.

What I plan to do next
We're spinning out a couple of R&D projects at Interface that I'd like to see working successfully. They're my way of demonstrating how open innovation – I mean, letting ideas flow in and out of an organisation – can accelerate sustainability in the business context. It's all about working with partners to share risks and rewards, which is ultimately what the transition to a sustainable world will need. If we can prove this with a big brand like Interface, that will feel like a real achievement. The innovation and sustainability worlds are really colliding now: systems thinking is sustainability.

Advice for future leaders
If you don't ask, you don't get: you need to become a professional irritant! When you're starting a career, you think that everyone knows more than you, and question what you have to add. But, if you have an idea and present it in an engaging way, people say "yes" to you. There's actually more danger of people saying "yes" than "no". Once, at the eleventh hour, I pulled together a consortium of partners to pitch for funding for a new fibre technology. The idea ended up winning €1 million for a four-year project, and a Rushlight Award. It's scary where you might end up!

Miriam Turner was in conversation with Katie Shaw.

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