AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Growing into Sustainability: Baby Steps

Copyright 2003 AXIS Performance Advisors

Growing into Sustainability:
From Baby Steps to High Performance

By Marsha Willard

Courtesy Evgeni Dinev,

Courtesy Evgeni Dinev,

Darcy and I recently found ourselves working with a client who was experiencing a very common problem. The organization had been talking about sustainability for some time; most people within the organization were knowledgeable about the issues and many were serious about taking the organization into a sustainable future. Still they were stuck. People didn’t know what to actually DO;how their daily jobs should be different. Like many organizations they assumed that once a critical number of people “got it,” that suddenly things would start to happen; processes would change, job tasks would evolve,and innovations would result. That this wasn’t happening after a couple of years of talking about sustainability had our clients scratching their heads.

We all wish there was a magic sustainability wand that could transform an organization and all its members with one wave. But there isn’t. In reality,the road to sustainability involves many steps with plenty of potholes along the way. To help our client get their organization moving, we began by describing our own evolution toward sustainability. Our story, as it turns out, is fairly common and illustrates the developmental growth people commonly go through in getting from here to “there.” The story generated a number of ideas and strategies that we were then able to match to the stages of development our client’s employees exhibited.

Our Story

AXIS is proud of its evolving and expanding efforts toward becoming a sustainable business. Though we are a small organization, we have made commitments to resource reduction, alternative transportation, green power and carbon credits. We have been a “climate neutral” business for over three years. The Oregon Natural Step Network recently added a case study on AXIS to its Tool Kit. We also transformed our business to help others make this same transition. Six or seven years ago, however, we were scratching our heads, just like our client, wondering what role we could play in the sustainability movement and what we could start doing differently. Our own experience has helped us develop create a diagnostic model that now helps organizations identify where in this developmental process they are and what they might do to move to the next stage.

While we acknowledge that no two organizations take exactly the same route to sustainability, we have discovered that there are three developmental stages that most organizations go through. Like toddlers learning to walk,there are three key stages. You must first build your muscles and coordination to stand up. Then you have to learn to navigate from a whole new position before you finally get to really cut loose in your environment. Within each stage are two or three particular hurdles that have to be negotiated before you can move to the next phase. The hurdles are expressed as the questions we grappled with in our own development. The story of how we answered these questions has helped us frame solutions for other organizations.

Developmental Stages and Associated Hurdles

 Stage 1: Standing for sustainability

Stage 2: Taking the
first steps

Stage 3: Running with sustainability

I don’t understand what sustainability isI don’t see a match to what I do

I don’t trust that this is real or lasting

I don’t know how to apply sustainability to what I doI don’t have the tools or technologies to apply it.

I don’t have the latitude within my job to apply it

I don’t see the “market” for my ideas

Stage 1: Standing for sustainability

Long before an infant learns to walk, he has to learn to steady his legs beneath him. For organizations in this early stage of implementing sustainability the obstacles to full adoption have mostly to do with learning about something very new and unfamiliar and trusting that it is real. It requires, to some extent, a whole new orientation to the world. The basic strategy to help an organization through this stage is education and reassurance.

I don’t understand what sustainability is

When we first heard the term six or seven years ago we were intrigued,but confused. We hadn’t a clue what it meant so we started poking around,reading a lot and attending workshops and conferences. For many organizations a lack of familiarity with the terms and concepts of sustainability presents an initial obstacle. The normal starting place for most organizations is an introductory presentation or workshop on the basic concepts of sustainability.Sustainability is a vague term and one that is still assumed to mean financial or market sustainability to the uninitiated business person. How many people in your organization are at least generally conversant with concepts like Triple Bottom Line, Zero Waste, Natural Step or other common sustainability models and ideas?

 What to doEducation and exposure is the obvious strategy here. There are a multitude of approaches for bringing the concepts to people in your organization.The Natural Step Network offers free briefings to members to help them get started and several introductory full day public workshops throughout the year as well. Sustainable Northwest sponsors an annual three-day conference on sustainability in Portland. If you have the expertise in-house, you can conduct your own trainings or invite guests in for presentations.

  • Conduct or attend workshops on sustainability.
  • Conduct “brown bag” presentations or learning sessions on pieces of sustainability.
  • Publish reading lists and distribute them among employees.
  • Disseminate readings and research reports.
  • Send people to conferences.
  • Develop or subscribe to a “newsflash” service (e-mailed summaries of books, articles, case studies, etc.) AXIS offers a free one. To sign up just send an email to
  • Include sustainability training as part of new employee orientation.

I don’t see a match to what I do

After getting excited by the concepts of sustainability we found ourselves asking, “We’re organizational consultants. What role can we play in the sustainability movement?” We began to realize that implementing sustainability initiatives would not be that different from implementing any of the other organizational change efforts we had been working on for the last 13 years.

The connection between your existing role or function and sustainability is not always self-evident. People may need help seeing the links. Sometimes others in your own organization can be models or you may want to look outside your company for examples. Last fall we orchestrated a series of site visits for the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department so that their regional developers could see the connection between sustainability and competitive advantage and pass that perspective along to the struggling industries in their areas.

 What to do

  • Publish, present or otherwise share examples of what peers are doing and the connections they have made for themselves (For example, Darcy will be presenting a paper at this year’s national Organizational Development Network conference to help our own peers see the link between sustainability and OD work.)
  • Benchmark against other organizations ­ who is doing great things and what can you learn from them?
  • Conduct job review sessions. Examine day-to-day tasks in light of sustainability; envision a sustainable version of the job; assess the gap between what you are doing now and what you would be doing in a sustainable future and identify short and long term strategies for moving toward the sustainable job.
  • Create an organizational vision of sustainability that illustrates the “pathway” to sustainability for your organization.
  • Identify short and long term expectations, projects, tasks etc. that will take the organization toward the sustainable vision

I don’t trust that this is real or lasting

While this wasn’t an issue for us at AXIS (we are totally convinced that sustainability is here to stay), members of your organization may be cynical members of the “flavor of the month” club and assume that sustainability is a fad that will go the way of whatever initiative was launched last year.Usually this attitude is rooted in a lack of faith that leadership is sincerely behind the effort. Or perhaps the members of your organization suffer from”change fatigue” and are simply resistant to anything that looks new or like something else they have to take on. These symptoms will take concerted effort to overcome. Consider the following strategies to breathe energy into your employees.

 What to do

  • Draw the link between sustainability and previous initiatives to underscore the notion of continuous improvement and dispel the perception of fad hopping. Explain why sustainability is the next natural step for your organization.
  • Identify symbolic management actions that will demonstrate leadership’s commitment to the efforts. For example the leader of one of our client organizations began biking to work in support of her organization’s alternative transportation initiative.
  • Build expectations regarding sustainability into the performance management system (i.e. department plans, individual plans, measures, rewards, reviews, etc.)
  • Publicize the organization’s successes and publicly acknowledge those who contributed to those successes.
  • Reinforce an organizational vision of sustainability that illustrates the “pathway.”
  • Continuously review and revisit the short and long term expectations, projects, tasks etc and report on their progress.

Stage 2: Taking the First Steps Toward Sustainability

Karl Henrik Robert, primary author of The Natural Step framework for sustainability, understood from the very beginning that no one can achieve sustainability all at once; “It’s called the natural STEP, not the natural LEAP,” he is fond of saying. You get there one step at a time.Like a toddler taking his first steps, there are plenty of things to trip over. Our own experience and the experience with many of our clients have uncovered two primary obstacles. As people in your organization come to understand sustainability they begin to puzzle over how to apply it. They are like children who have learned to ambulate vertically, but haven’t yet mastered the intricacies of their environments. Getting the principles of walking is very different from navigating stairs or slippery linoleum. In this stage it is important to give people opportunities to try out new things in a safe environment and to provide them the tools and support they need to do them.

I don’t know how to apply it to what I do

So, at AXIS we got that sustainability was important and were convinced we had a role to play, but wondered exactly what that role would look like?We wondered what services or products would we could offer that would make sense to our clients? We conducted dozens of interviews and created a mind map relating our services and expertise to various issues of sustainability.We began to retool our products and realign our services. One of the first results was our Sustainability Series of how to booklets. They were a result of our asking ourselves, if we got a call tomorrow to help a client implement a sustainability initiative, what would we do? The question focused us, helped us expose our knowledge and skills gaps, pointed us to the people with whom we should form strategic alliances, AND resulted in a marketable product. We think everyone stuck at this step could benefit from a similar analytical approach. If you can envision a sustainable version of your job, then you can begin to see the actions necessary to move you toward it.

 What to do

  • Conduct job review sessions (examine day-to-day tasks in light of sustainability; envision a sustainable version of the job; assess the gap and identify short and long term strategies for moving toward the sustainable job).
  • Interview people in other organizations who do similar work or are applying sustainability concepts to their existing jobs.
  • Share case studies of what others are doing.
  • Brainstorm new products, services, and processes and then figure out how to deliver them.
  • Identify and prioritize sustainability projects and fold them into existing job duties.
  • Give people an opportunity to reshape their own jobs and evolve them toward new and more sustainable ways of doing things.

I don’t have the tools, methods, technologies, etc. to apply this to my work

When the task is clear, then the tools and technologies you need become evident. It was clear to us after writing the Sustainability Seriesthat we needed either to learn about or link up with people who could conduct energy audits, perform life cycle assessments, do eco-charettes and the like. Information resources and references regarding sustainability are propagating like rabbits. If your Google search results in a overwhelming number of hits, try starting at our own web site for a manageable sized list of good books and other resources. on suggested reading list and download a file organized by topic.)

 What to do

  • Benchmark against other organizations that are doing interesting or innovate things.
  • Train staff to conduct impacts assessments on their part of operations.
  • Broadcast information about what others in the organization are doing.
  • Create an information database or resource center where people can go for information.
  • Feature a new technology or methodology in each issue of your internal newsletter.

Stage 3: Running with Sustainability

Even after developing a level of sophistication around sustainability,employees can get frustrated by the limits of their internal and external environments. Imagine an active child who is ready to run, jump and climb,but can’t get to the playground. In this stage the most helpful thing and organization can do is to break down the barriers to performance and support the creative ideas employees generate.

I don’t have the latitude within my job to do what I think needs doing

When your organization has only two people in it like ours, you can be pretty nimble. Likely yours has more employees and is a little harder to redirect. This was the case with our recent client. People wondered how they could pursue their ideas about sustainability when their job descriptions and performance expectations made no mention of it. Would their managers really allow them to reprioritize their responsibilities so that they could begin to reshape their jobs? This obstacle absolutely requires leadership support. This is where management’s walk has to match the talk.

 What to do

  • Hold managers accountable for results related to sustainability by incorporating these expectation into their plans and performance reviews.
  • Expect managers to continuously address sustainability and regularly review progress on sustainability projects.
  • Re-evaluate individual job descriptions and incorporate duties related to sustainability.
  • Build expectations regarding sustainability into the performance management system (i.e. department plans, individual plans, measures, rewards, reviews, etc.)

I don’t see the “market” for my ideas

Once we at AXIS got clear about what we were offering, we started looking around for the clients with whom we could work. Let’s just say that in the first year or two customers didn’t exactly break down our doors. But overtime, we built our reputation. Now the sustainability portion of our work takes up the majority of our time. You may find yourself in a similar situation.What if your customers aren’t asking for a greener product? What if they don’t care that you are a carbon neutral service organization? How do you justify your efforts if there is no apparent pay off?

Every market leader has faced this dilemma at one point or another. The good news about getting out ahead of your competition is that you are primed to be an industry leader. The bad news is that you get there often before the customer does. But the smartest companies don’t wait for their customers to ask for something, they anticipate their needs and then sell the customers on the benefits.

 What to do

  • Develop “sales” skills among staff to enable them to talk persuasively about sustainability to others.
  • Help people understand the “1st mover advantage.” The organization that gets an innovation to market second never quite captures the same advantage. When Burger King saw the good relations MacDonald’s was building with customers in Sweden through its environmental practices, it quickly followed suit but never earned the same positive image.
  • Train staff to build business cases for their ideas and to identify financial returns related to sustainability.
  • Discover the potential return on learning. Sometimes it’s hard to sell an idea that has a large capital price tag attached. But learning comes much cheaper and can reap just as much pay back.
  • Conduct public presentations to “pre-sell” sustainability to customers or constituents. Twenty years ago we didn’t know we needed special shoes for running or antibacterial soap to really clean our hands. Teach your customers to see the value in the sustainability features you can offer.
  • Create the financial incentive to pursue or buy sustainable options.
    Traditional accounting practices mask the real costs of some unsustainable practices (like health and training costs associated with certain material uses) and over inflates the price of sustainable ones. Look for these accounting perversions to find the financial backing for your ideas.

Identifying Your Stage of Development

We’re guessing that as you read this article you recognized members of your own organization at one or more of the stages described. Diagnosing the point in your development is important to choosing the strategies necessary for moving forward. Doing the right thing at the wrong time will have little positive impact. Training people over and over again doesn’t help them if they are at one of the later stages. While each situation and organization is different, we think many of the strategies we’ve shared here are a logical starting place. Adapt these as needed to fit your situation or use them as a jumping off place to generate other ideas.

If you have other ideas, we’d love to hear them. Or if you want feedback on something you’d like to try, we’d be happy to chat with you about them.


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This entry was posted on August 2, 2013 by in Articles/Posts and tagged , , , , , , .

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