AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Sustainability and Org Development: Critical Marriage

Copyright 2003 AXIS Performance Advisors.

Sustainability and Organizational Development: A Critical Marriage

By Darcy Hitchcock, president of AXIS Performance Advisors

Courtesy Ambro,

Courtesy Ambro,

Many organizations and communities are trying to implement sustainable practices and this trend is accelerating. For example, according to a PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey of 140 companies representing $2.5 trillion in revenues, 75 percent were currently implementing some elements of sustainable practices and 89 percent felt sustainability would be even more important in five years than it is now. Surveys like this tend to overstate the degree of support, but even if you cut their figures in half, this represents a sea change in corporate thinking. But few organizations are underpinning their sustainability initiatives with proven organizational development theory.

Implementation Challenges

The challenges organizations face when implementing sustainability are the same ones they face with any new change initiative:

  • How to get people to think differently about what they do
  • How to make a compelling business case that resonates with all levels of the organization
  • How to select from a plethora of frameworks, tools and buzzwords
  • How to develop an implementation strategy that fits the needs and culture of the organization
  • How to orchestrate learning opportunities over time to keep the initiative alive
  • How to facilitate teams of people with wide-ranging perspectives and priorities
  • How to embed the initiative into the core business systems so it becomes institutionalized and no longer dependent on certain individuals to keep it going.

These are the types of issues that organizational development (OD) focuses on. Since we are at the early adopter stage of this movement, many of the organizations that have attempted to implement sustainable business practices have done so without the benefit of an OD perspective or a tested road map.In fact, many have done this mostly under the direction of technical people:environmental managers, engineers, and so forth. These people often have an appropriate technical background but lack a solid grounding in organizational change principles. And this has led to unnecessary challenges and barriers to implementation.

Here are some of the common mistakes we have observed that relate to mismanaging the change effort:

Overwhelming people with technical and scientific information.

Many people who do presentations and workshops on The Natural Step framework get bogged down in the scientific principles. To combat this, I reorganized the typical presentation around a single visual that helps people remember the four “system conditions” or principles. Keeping it simple without trivializing the science makes the message meaningful, credible and useful.

Getting people excited in a presentation but having no mechanism to channel their energies.

One company decided to train all their employees on sustainability. The training unleashed a wave of ideas from employees, but there was no mechanism to handle or respond to them. By the time the company hired someone to manage their sustainability initiative, they had amassed over 250 suggestions, many of which were over a year old, a tragic loss of momentum. One of the new director’s first tasks was to sort through the suggestions and get back to the employees about their efficacy.

Assuming that teaching people the principles will be adequate to affect change.

One client had had a couple presentations on sustainability and The Natural Step framework. The executive was entirely bought into the concept. But nothing had happened. We helped the executive set up a diagonal slice steering committee which then spawned a couple task forces. We made sure that at least some of the projects were visible to and educational for staff; one of the projects involved resurrecting an employee suggestion system so that anyone who had an idea would have a way to send it up the flagpole if they couldn’t act on the idea themselves. We also showed the executive how to embed sustainability into their already existing all-staff meetings as a natural way to educate employees and highlight successes.

Lacking a process to implement sustainability.

Many people coming out of workshops on implementing The Natural Step framework complain that they still don’t know what to do. The “back casting” process taught in these workshops is only one part of the implementation process. So we identified a series of implementation steps (how to build a business case, how to identify your environmental impacts, how to develop metrics, how to reduce greenhouse gases, etc.) and wrote how-to booklets for each step called the Sustainability Series. Once people see a process they can quickly modify it to meet their needs, but most people are not well skilled in developing a process from scratch.

Applying inappropriate and unnecessarily complicated processes that bog people down in analysis-paralysis.

One client had both manufacturing and retail operations. They began implementing sustainability in their manufacturing side and implemented an environmental management system a la IS 14000. When they began working on the retail side, they tried to use the same process. The people there struggled with the EMS jargon and got quickly overwhelmed by analyzing all their processes. They burned out before much got accomplished. They needed to ratchet back to a process and terminology more appropriate for their needs.

Top management not walking the talk.

One client was focusing on reducing greenhouse gases and as such, were not only looking for ways to reduce their energy use but also to encourage employees to use alternative transportation. Reaction to the employee-led initiative was mixed. So we talked the executive director into showing up to an all-staff meeting in her bike helmet, after having ridden to work. This symbolic act did a lot to demonstrate her commitment to sustainability.

Sustainability is hard enough without making foreseeable organizational/change management mistakes. So an OD perspective can contribute a great deal to this movement. As one engineer once told me, “To get anything done,you have to assemble a group of people to explore how to apply sustainability.They all have strong opinions. Pretty soon, someone’s bound to get angry and then I don’t know what to do.” Communication, training and facilitation skills are desperately needed.

Seven favorite OD principles

The field of Organizational Development is quite broad but there area handful of principles I keep coming back to. Let me share my favorite touchstone concepts.

Change often doesn’t start at the top.

There’s a common myth that change starts at the top of organizations.True, it can start there, but a great deal of change begins in recesses of the corporation. Often our stories about the change process start when the CEO “gets it”; for example, stories about Interface often start with Ray Anderson’s speech but before he gave that speech, someone gave him the book, Ecology of Commerce. This leader-envy says more about our disempowering beliefs than reality. To be successful, eventually the top leaders must internalize the change, but don’t feel that you have to have their support to get started. If you don’t have an enlightened leader,then build a portfolio of projects that would be judged as wildly successful in traditional (financial) terms. Then they’ll want to know how you did it.

[If you want to learn more about what contributes to successful change efforts, check out these resources: Leading Change by John Kotter, Harvard Business Review on Change which is an anthology of some of their better articles on the topic or read some of HBR’s articles including “Successful Change Programs Begin with Results” Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 1992 or “Leading Change” by John Kotter.]

Everyone’s not ready at the same time, and you don’t need a majority to be successful.

According to diffusion of innovation theory, change moves through a population in a bell curve. Think about the adoption of the Internet. First, innovators experiment; the Internet began with dweebes and geeks tinkering in universities and the Department of Defense. Then early adopters began to use it; these people are tolerant of awkward interfaces and support, like the old CompuServe.The early majority gets on board when there is proof of concept and it’s easy to use; think AOL. The late majority got involved only when they started to look bad in comparison, or it became the only way they’d hear from their kids. And the laggards may never adopt the change.

You can use this bell-curve to think about which industries, sectors or organizations may be ready to adopt sustainability. And you can also use it inside your organization to identify who is ready to be an advocate.The concept of critical mass theorizes that you only need 15-25% of a population to adopt a change for the whole population to shift. And this has been born out in sustainability. I asked someone in a plant that has been touted as a grand success story, “So how many of your employees really live and breathe sustainability, who think about it on a regular basis?” The person really didn’t want to answer my question, but when pressed, he estimated perhaps 15%. You can get fantastic results with a relatively small percentage of supporters. So seek out influential allies and demonstrate good business results. The majority will come along or get out of the way… eventually.

[If you want to learn more about how innovations are adopted by society, check out these books: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore, Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers or for a marketing spin, read “Unleash Your Ideavirus” by Seth Godin, FastCompany August 2000.]

People support what they help build.

Research has shown repeatedly that people are much more likely to support an effort that they participated in planning, even if they are not wild about the initiative. So involve as many people as you can. Get a cross-section of your organization involved; this is often done using a steering group. Ask for reactions and input all along the way. Often that biggest naysayer can become your strongest advocate.

[If you want to learn more about how to enlarge the circle of participation, check out these resources: Changing the Essence by Richard Beckhard or “Changing the Way We Change” by Richard Tanner Pascale, Harvard Business Review Nov. 1997.]

Resistance is not something to be overcome; it’s to be engaged.

It’s funny that we usually think about other people resisting; when we do it, it’s a rational response; when they do it, it’s not. Resistance is a natural reaction when you are threatened in some way. So ask yourself,”What might people feel like they are losing by pursuing sustainability?”Common fears include losing their job, losing their sense of competence,having to invest time and effort in learning new things, or losing their sense of identity. Sometimes people’s resistance is based in useful knowledge about what will or will not work. So move toward the resistance, instead of away from it. Explore its roots. See what you can learn from resistance and use those insights in your planning.

[If you want to learn more about dealing with resistance, check out these books: Beyond the Wall of Resistance by Rick Maurer and Managing Transitions by William Bridges.]

The more familiar it seems, the less likely you are to generate the immune response.

Any system tries to preserve the status quo and organizations are no different. You’ve probably seen the immune response in action, white-blood-cell-people who try to kill off a good idea before it has a chance to thrive. The more alien and threatening your initiative, the more likely you are to generate this response. So explain how sustainability is a logical extension of what your organization is already doing. You may have to find alternative terms(like zero waste, high-performance buildings, triple bottom line, risk management,etc.) which represent bridging concepts and resonate better with influential people. You may want to begin by finding ways to tuck sustainability into what you are already doing: discuss it as one of many emerging trends in your strategic planning retreat; add it as an additional criteria in purchasing decisions; use The Natural Step as a filter to select goals and objectives in your environmental management system. Viruses that start quietly and have a long incubation period tend to be longer lasting; they have to be contagious but not kill off their host.

[If you want to learn more about how to embed sustainability into things you are already doing, check out our Sustainability Series booklets on relevant topics, including Choosing Greener Products and Embedding
Sustainability into your EMS.

Forming a team is a design task.

Too often, teams are “formed” without much thought or planning. Y’all come, voluntary teams are a particularly egregious example of this. But you form a team to accomplish something and that objective determines
who needs to be on the team. So before you form a steering group, green team or task force, spend a significant amount of time thinking through: Why do we need this team? What is it we want them to accomplish? Who needs
to be on the team? What are their boundary conditions? Do we have biases about how they should approach their task? What expectations do we have regarding milestones, budget and communication?

[If you want to learn more about how to form teams, ask us about our
pre-launch process or check out these books: Designing Team-Based Organizations
by Susan Albers Mohrman, Teamwork: What Must Go Right/What Can Go
by Carl Larson and Organizing for the Future by Jay Galbraith.]

Business systems must be aligned to reinforce the change.

Remember the old line, “I can’t hear what you’re saying because your actions are screaming”? Business systems are one of those symbolic actions that employees pay attention to, to determine whether they believe what their leaders are saying. For example, how often have we seen managers advocate teamwork but then use performance appraisals and reward schemes that focus on individual contribution? For sustainability to “stick,”eventually all major business systems will need to be modified to reinforce it. For example, in business planning, at a minimum, groups should be asked to come up with a sustainability-related goal or improvement project which is then included in the budget. Eventually the entire business plan may reflect sustainability. Similarly, new sustainability measures must be tracked and reported (for example, the degree to which your company is climate neutral or has achieved zero waste). People must be reviewed, rewarded and promoted based at least in part on their contribution to sustainability efforts.If you don’t do this, your efforts will eventually fizzle.

[If you want to learn more about how to align business systems, check out these books: Strategic Pay by Edward Lawler, Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, Counting What Counts by Marc Epstein and one of our old books, Why Teams Can Fail and What to Do About It by Hitchcock and Willard.]

Don’t wait to begin your journey

Sustainability is going to transform our world and our organizations,much like the quality movement and the information age have. It is based on global trends that no one can escape, including population growth and the decline of living systems. So your organization can either begin to understand the implications of these trends and take appropriate action or wait to be surprised. Recall that the US automakers have never been able to recover the market share they lost to the quality movement 30 years ago,so the risks of being oblivious are significant and long-lasting. To succeed,you will need to develop your skills in both sustainability and organizational development. Don’t let your organization fall too far behind the learning curve. As Bill McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle, likes to say,”Negligence starts tomorrow.”


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