The Intersect: Practitioners’ field of play
3 August 2021

I am tentatively naming the Intersect. It’s jargon, but better than repeating “a dynamic set of environmental and social impacts and dependencies, risks and opportunities”. This Intersect is a conceptual – and physical – space where your organisation encounters the bigger systems of society and the environment and vice versa. To survive, your organisation must connect to financial systems, knowledge systems, human systems, etc. But sustainability practitioners focus on the connection to social and natural systems – society and nature – because that is our field of play. They also happen to be the fundamental systems underpinning our survival, and are often the ones organisations think about last. In several hundred years of commerce as we know it, they’ve only just made it onto the business agenda.

Issues abound on this littoral zone amongst the flotsam and jetsam. Some evolve or connect to form material risks and opportunities that require a response, immediate or otherwise. Working at the Intersect recalls a time when our ability to make sense of what lay beyond the tribal village meant the difference between life and death. The Intersect challenges us. It is where we honed our cognitive biases. Millennia on, it is where those same cognitive biases return to mess with our ability to make sense of it.

Taking the diagram as a simplistic starting point, we try to recall that the Intersect has always been:

  • Every-which-way: Trends in society and nature impact your organisation; your organisation impacts society and nature. And much about and in-between.
  • Dynamic: Issues can become material overnight; a risk today could present an opportunity for positive impact tomorrow. And vice versa.
  • Complex: Issues tend to be entangled and unpredictable.

In the old days (I’m being deliberately vague), we took ourselves physically into the Intersect to get to know it. Nowadays, ‘materiality processes’ inform corporate disclosure, reducing the Intersect to a list of topics and trends. Then a few organisational minds set about determining which are more important and why. In fact, they usually don’t think about the second part too much. The first question is overwhelming enough, particularly if we start to wonder who actually made the list in the first place.

It’s not difficult to see why many organisations consider their materiality process to be an in-joke, and are unperturbed as the output – usually a list of 10 ‘material topics’ – floats off, unanchored in any real context, ensuring the requisite box gets ticked. The box that requires them to do a materiality analysis. This is actually happening out there and consulting companies are making even sillier amounts of money running these processes. I’ll box up my cynic for now, trusting that yours will emerge when you find yourself voting up topics onto a 2×2 materiality matrix and paying hardearned cash for the pleasure.

Through a multitude of interactions, your organisation is walking its Intersect already, every minute of every day. We just don’t track the intel. In the absence of using digital tech to do this (which I think is a good idea in principle and my starting place would be SenseMaker), you can hit the 80/20 Pareto point in a good conversation with decision-makers that starts with the business model. By doing this every year, we become aware of our Intersect’s ebbs, flows and eddies as decision-makers grapple to make sense of how the changing context impacts what matters. It’s not the ‘truth’ and it does not produce a list, but it develops an awareness and may help us find better ways to stay in touch.

I think:

  1. What matters at the Intersect depends on who’s asking
  2. Decision-makers’ intuition about what matters will improve through repeated conversation
  3. It takes a village to actually track the Intersect.

Ever since recovering from a memorable evening with a mining client at a local shebeen, I try to schedule at least one non-directed, embodied encounter within the Intersect of the company I am working with. When last did you walk aimlessly in your organisation’s Intersect, conversing with whomever or whatever you encountered? Do you remember? Zoom has made my job more comfortable, but it has serious limitations.


Banner image cropped from a photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash



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