How I learnt about materiality
26 September 2021

In 1999, I was a silly young consultant who had no business flying halfway across the world to a diamond mine in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia to help make sense of their environmental risks. I had barely begun to make sense of myself.

On that occasion, I blundered across a songline and sacred site with no respect and even less awareness. Whatever happened exactly, it catalysed a personal crisis that veered way beyond my control. Two weeks later, I returned to South Africa, home of the global diamond monopoly, sick and shaking. I was lucky enough to be mentored by people who knew how indigenous Southern Africans have worked with human-nature relations for millennia. Eventually I began to understand, though it took me another 20 years to fit things together. I had a lot to unlearn.

Sustainability strategy requires that we make sense of the ESG edge, our interface with social and environmental realities.  Our understanding of the edge evolved when science was different. It had not yet succumbed to its present splits and assumptions of objectivity that pass for what’s real. Our encounters with nature and communities – both human and more-than-human  (to use geo-philosopher David Abram’s words) – found wonder and wildness, danger and opportunity in equal measure. That hasn’t changed, though our response has.

So, when we find ourselves at the blunt end of a Zoom session voting on the relative importance of 12 (that’s what Mentimeter stretches to) ‘material matters’, our inner human senses something amiss. At least, it should.

Sense-making pervades our work as sustainability practitioners. We call it materiality analysis because that’s what investors call it when they’re working out whether an organisation’s residual risk might derail their investment. Reflecting back on what was material over a given reporting period is hard enough; reflecting forwards – to inform strategy at the ESG edge – is far trickier. I’ve stopped calling it materiality analysis. It is sense-making.

When we use sense-making to inform strategy, we seek a handle on what matters, why it matters, how much it matters and in what direction its matteriness may be moving. (My six-year-old is helping me to explore new and wonderful words.) Whether we are six or older, this is quite a lot to juggle. But especially when we are older because most of us have been taught to think in categories: one list of things that matter; another for those that don’t. Of course, Covid-19 just blew our neat categories away. We’ve realised that it’s not the things on our lists that matter; it is the relationships between things – on lists and everything else – that matter. Which is something else entirely.

I was taught an approach to strategic sense-making when I trained as a diviner of the Southern African Tswana-Shangaan Majoye lineage in 2002. Learning to divine – or ‘throw the bones’ – is part of the indigenous cure for the sickness I arrived home with from Argyle Diamond Mine. Learning the hakata was arduous and often unpleasant as my teachers cut uncompromisingly through my disposition to analytics of the ‘best practice’ variety. Weeks of sweat and nausea would give way to momentary epiphanies as I started to see patterns in the tumble of bones on my mat.  A few days of unbridled joy would follow, and then the sweaty cycle would begin again. Graduating as a diviner did not mean I had to abandon reason; it meant I had to learn how to reason in a different way. In my case, it included dealing with an assumption that my former approach was universally valid and, actually, the only real game in town.

I highly value my education from both the University of Cape Town and Yale School of Environment, but it came with a cognitive tax that I could not foresee. I studied at a time when only the quantum physicists had encountered directly the limits of matter and whether we were able to know it in the first place. They decided that we couldn’t, which led to a lot of innovation. For better and for worse. Tyson Yunkaporta shares this insight and much more in his inspiring book, Sand Talk.

We don’t just do sense-making: we must open to receive signals before we can work with them. Openness means being prepared to change if our actions clash with a re-collection of fundamental laws – social, natural or economic. These fundamental laws – which inform all indigenous approaches I’ve encountered – cannot be adequately codified by regulations that assume a linear relationship between cause and effect. (The ordered domain, for those familiar with Snowden’s Cynefin Framework.)

As we recognise the interconnected and unforecastable nature of ESG issues, our strategy processes must engage with complexity. We’ve reached the limits of expert consultants and best practice guidelines. Genuine sense-making requires a different approach – what my mentor Niall Campbell calls ‘tracking’ or what Yunkaporta refers to as ‘pattern-mind’. Either way, we’re well beyond the comfort zone of most boardrooms, which partially explains why so few sustainability strategies navigate successfully beyond the basics. It’s also why I avoid consulting projects in favour of thinking partnerships these days.

An interim solution – more palatable to the boss – is to find a materiality process that engages with complexity at least better than the last one. Thanks to Covid, these are emerging from consultancies thick and fast, though I’ll bet they’re not all as complexity-fit as they claim.

Developed over the past ten years, Incite’s VILROS materiality framework is based on a two-stage process of sense-making and sense-checking. We’ve steadfastly avoided lists and voting, and it’s somewhat complexity-fit, though at a high level of granularity. I am excited about working with Sonja Blignaut, founder of More Beyond, to see how SenseMaker® could make it more granular. The digital platform would make it possible to gather and analyse, at scale, a diverse range of real experiences and perceptions from the ESG edge. The perceptual landscapes generated from SenseMaker’s digital analytics are distinctly reminiscent of the bones…but the outputs are board-friendly and tailored for actionable insight and decision-making.

Please be in touch directly if you’re interested.


Banner image overlays a picture of me as a student in Botswana in 2002 (original photo: Marilyn McDowell) and a picture of some of mybones’ (traditional divination tool).


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