by Anne Giardini, forest sector leader: former Canadian CEO of Weyerhaeuser

As a result of years of focused effort, the Canadian forest products industry has improved its environmental and social performance and is increasingly seen as green and sustainable by many of its communities and observers. 

I will be speaking at a Public Policy Forum event to be held on March 27 entitled the Future of Forestry: Sustainable Solutions.  My topic will be some of what I have learned about trust, accountability and transparency after spending more than two decades working in this sector.
I have been influenced by the perspective of a fellow Icelander, Glen Sigurdson, an experienced mediator of public and private interests and disputes.  He says:

The implications and uncertainties around fish, mines or gas fields are challenging in and of themselves.   However, the far greater challenge is the inability of organizations to resolve problems when the solution requires engaging with other parties who see the world differently.
Glen uses a drawing when he speaks – of small circles inside a larger one.

Each of the smaller circles is meant to represent an organization.  A corporation. A government agency or department.  An indigenous community.  A union. The media. Universities. Cities. Neighbourhoods. ENGOs and NGOs.  The bigger circle drawn around them is the project or undertaking that brings or tries to bring them together.

The illustration is useful.  We’ve all spent a lot of time working out which circle we are inside of and the working out what we can influence from inside that circle.

Being in a circle suggests that finding common ground will require us to define our own boundaries, and then go out to find or create areas of overlap, the areas where we might be able to agree and might be able to work together.

In my experience, since the problems and circumstances we face aren’t static, the areas of definition and overlap tend to slip and slide.  The circles are in movement.  We are bounded, and our areas of overlap are both limited and shifting.

But there is something else here that Glen reminds us to notice. 

The area between the circles.

As people who help to resolve issues, our job is to understand the big and little things that happen inside not only our space and the space of the others, but also outside the area covered by others we deal with. 

Each of us will perceive this area differently. I like the phrase “the space between us”. 

Throughout my career, I have found myself at least some of the time, in the space between the circles.  This requires that we exercise imagination.  Imagination is particularly important because we have only our own limited experiences to draw on but need to be able to able to imagine what others perceive and experience and have a good idea of what their reactions will be to our decisions and actions. 

We can and should take this even further if possible and imagine futures outside our own experience and the experiences of others.  I sometimes wonder if people who read a lot of science fiction for example might make better decisions than the rest of us because they have already contemplated the future in this way. Certainly I believe that people who read novels, or who know their classics, or the ancient myths and sagas, are better at the kinds of empathy and understanding that lead to better decisions. And I have always thought quilt makers have insights we don’t draw on very often – making a coherent whole out of small pieces.

We are asking ourselves at this event how Canadian companies can apply concepts of collaboration or shared values in innovative ways to solve social and economic challenges, while also creating a benefit to their business.  Are we creating, for example, new opportunities for cross-sector partnering? What happens if we run out of common ground?  

What have I learned over 20 plus years? Most of it is humbling. 

This is partly because I know more now about what I don’t know – these are Donald Rumsfeld’s famous unknown unknowns – what a vigorous and useful concept.

It is also because I have seen more and learned more about the complexity and range of human responses to needs, wants and threats.

In any case, here is my take.

First, be aware you know less than you think you know. Challenge your own assumptions.

Second, kill your darlings. Your thinking is unduly bounded by timelines, goals, budgets, emotions, a need to win or be seen to win, etc.

Third, when you can, draw the discussion to the space between. To the bigger picture. To the larger goals and problems and stakes. Often I have found that the real challenges to doing this are within your own organization, rather than from others.

Now, I am Chancellor of Simon Fraser University. The University’s framework and vision is be an engaged university. So I always put engagement first. Engagement inside our organizations. Engagement with the other participants in a problem. Engagement with the unknowns in the space in between.

Success lies when we engage with other parties who see the world differently and it leads to the right products, services, purpose and operations.
We can’t afford to get this wrong.

So, I invite you to join the event on March 27th.  If you can’t be there in person, register at for the livestream webcast.