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Going Green Maximum Velocity through AI’s Sustainable Design Factory
By David Cooperrider

Why are ‘firms of endearment”—rising industry leading stars that have created huge emotional bonds with the world such as Toyota, Whole Foods, GE, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters—generating investor returns at a rate of some 1,026 percent over a ten year period compared to 122 percent for the S&P 500; more that a 8-to-1 ratio!

It's because going green is a magic. It's a productivity engine. What happens, in a nutshell, is a leap in human energy. What happens is an eruption of human imagination.  What is generated is a culture  of innovation, hope, and a powerful sense of purpose, meaning, and value.

The untold story about the companies embracing sustainability is really an HR story. It is all about the kind of super-charged employee engagement—heart, mind, and motivation—that every C.E.O wants.  Truth is going green doesn’t pay off this way all the time; but new insights and business tools are dramatically raising the odds of success.

How, for example, did Fairmount Santrol do it? Imagine it: you are a loader-operator in the sand pits of this dirty, hard-core mining and manufacturing company, and yet you are on fire with pride, and the company has realized a sizzling 40% annual earnings growth for the past two years, ever since it decided to harness the sustainability advantage to “do good and do well.”

Let me tell you Fairmount’s remarkable story, and some of the leadership lessons you can take to the bank.

Fairmount Santrol, headquartered in Chardon, Ohio, is one of the largest producers of industrial sand in the United States. Primarily serving the metal casting and fracture sand markets, Fairmount Santrol supports the foundry, oil and gas industries as well as turf and landscaping, water filtration, commercial glass manufacturing, construction, industrial, and filler and extender markets. With two basic operating divisions – Industrial Sand and Manufacturing – the company runs nine mining and mineral processing plants, four manufacturing coating plants, and two toll manufacturing operations in Mexico, Denmark and soon China.

Sound like a place for award winning eco-innovation? Read on.

It so happens that Chuck Fowler, CEO of Fairmount Santrol, received his Executive MBA from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, the birthplace of Appreciative Inquiry, something that is creating a positive revolution in the field of change. Following the strengths-based leadership philosophy of Peter Drucker, Appreciative Inquiry says that “the essential task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a systems’ weaknesses irrelevant.” It says that managing and leading change is ALL about strengths: elevating strengths, magnifying strengths, and creating new combinations and chemistries of strengths in ways that propel innovation.

Appreciative Inquiry—or “AI” for short-- has two radical but exciting premises. First, is says forget everything you learned in change management 101—organizations are not problems-to-be-solved—and that all the deficit based change methods, from gap analysis to organizational diagnosis, are in fact creating an exhausting treadmill and barrier to real innovation. Appreciative inquiry turns the problem-solving habits of the field on their head, and shows that change is more powerful, energizing, and effective when we inquire into the true, the good, the better and the possible—everything that gives life to a system when is most alive and at its exceptional best. Do you really think one more survey into low morale is going to generate the energy and new vision of a company filled with people alive with passion and high commitment? AI theory says no: all the studies in the world of low morale will not tell us one thing about “high commitment work systems.” If we want to know how to create a high commitment work system we would be better off doing 100 interviews—a real study—of “high point moments” in people’s career in the organization, times when they were most committed and alive in their work and when they were going way beyond their job descriptions.  So AI is about the discovery of life-generating strengths and instead of SWOT it is built on an analytic model called SOAR, that is, the systematic study of signature strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results.

The second idea AI promotes, beyond the idea of strengths-based inquiry and change, is the principle of whole system in the room. There are endless arguments over the relative merits of top down change versus bottom up change. AI theory says both are increasingly obsolete, and so is the idea that the most effective sized group is 6-8 people, for example 6-8 people at the top doing strategy work and then doing the famous “communications rollout.” Indeed some of the most exciting AI strategy work happening today is starting to answer the most perplexing and challenging question every CEO faces and that is: “how do we really change at the scale of the whole?”  AI responds and in turn raises its own compelling question: “Could it be that the most effective size group, for significant and major strategic issues, is 500 people or a 1000 people, interactively visioning, designing, and creating vis-a-vis a true alignment of the strengths of the whole?”

This was Chuck Fowler’s daring approach to going green. He in fact helped pioneer the next generation AI Summit method. It is called the “Sustainable Design Factory.”

What’s involved?  First, it is based on an innovator’s mindset. It insists on a mindset that says “every single global issue of our day is a business opportunity in disguise.”  Second, the Sustainable Design Factory is multi-stakeholder savvy. It is all about collaborative, high engagement innovation. Fairmount’s summit was a model: 300 people from every level of the company—loader operators and truck drivers to the chief financial officer and the head of marketing—together with key external stakeholders including customers, suppliers, community citizens, investors, external sustainability experts, best practice companies, and critics of Fairmount (yes the summit included NGOs and even regulators in Fairmount’s strategic planning session!).

Does it sound like a formula for chaos, that is, bringing together 300 of the most diverse stakeholders you can imagine for three days of planning where no-one has a pre-set plan or blueprint ahead of time? The CEO Chuck Fowler put it best: “yes we were nervous to co-create from scratch, with such a large group, but do you know what we discovered…we learned that the very best in human beings comes out when people experience the wholeness and entire sum of strengths of the system they work in.”

Using an intense, quick-turnaround, brainstorm-and-prototype process the sustainable design factory was buzzing. Groups were formed to design ways to reduce social and environmental risks; to create models for radical productivity increases in energy use; to invent green products; to open new market opportunities to help eradicate extreme poverty; to build brand strategy around sustainability and a new set of guiding principles; and to use the 3-P’s—the people, planet and prosperity mantra-- to help the whole industry shift.

Today the company is off and running with solar power and biodiesel, new packaging, a whole line of green products, new collaborative tools to engage communities and restore old mines into beautiful parkland, and much more. Talk about going green with velocity and early payoff: one of the ideas generated at the summit resulted in a six million dollar savings. And one of the employees’ favorites—a source of great pride-- was the design of an ultra low-cost sand water filter to create clean water in parts of the world where billions of people live on less that $2 per day. Working with the Aqua Clara Foundation the project now works in 35 countries providing clean water to over 1 million people while at the same time opening up whole new, unexpected markets for the Fairmount Santrol business.

Just two years after the launch of their sustainability journey Fairmount Santrol was selected by the US Chamber of Commerce and the #1 corporate citizen in America. Today Fairmount’s people are being asked to speak everywhere—most recently on a world stage at the United Nations Global Compact.  At one of the forums the CFO of the company, Jenniffer Deckard pounds the podium with excitement: “We can do good and do well.” 

This is what going green at maximum velocity is really all about.

To read more on the Fairmount Santrol story see Chris Lazslo’s new book on Sustainable Value;  and to see a the video of the Sustainable Design Factory in Action go to the Fairmount Santrol website at


Positive Organization Development: Innovation-inspired Change in an Economy and Ecology of Strengths 
August, 2010

Decade of Determination: Building an Economic Engine Empowering a Green City on a Blue Lake Through "AI"
September, 2009

Going Green Maximum Velocity through AI's Sustainable Design Factory
March, 2008

Aiming Higher with Appreciative Inquiry: Building on our Collaboration with the United Nations Global Compact
February, 2006

David Cooperrider's Foreword to Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn
November, 2005

High Hope in the Himalayas: A 2005 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Her Work With Appreciative Inquiry
September, 2005

The United Nations Global Compact Leaders Summit
February, 2005

"Blessed is this peacemaker"
January, 2005

New Publications on AI: Forewards by David Cooperrider
February, 2004

Business as an Agent of World Benefit - Replay video
October, 2003

Peter Drucker's Advice for Us on the New AI Project: Business as an Agent of World Benefit
March, 2003

The Birth of the AI Commons
October, 2001

- Sponsored by the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University -
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