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July 2014 - Terra Infirma

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30 July 2014

Turbocharging Employee Engagement with the 80:20 Rule

Pareto eighty twenty principle

Life isn't even.

But strangely, much of it is predictably uneven, leading to what is commonly called the 80:20 rule where 80% of outputs often arise from 20% of inputs, known to mathematicians as a power law distribution.

I can see myriad examples of the 80:20 rule from where I am sitting: 20% of Terra Infirma's clients bring in 80% of income, 20% of our YouTube videos deliver 80% of visitor views etc. The patterns are uncanny and also incredibly powerful as understanding the rule can lead to great leaps forward in performance whether in sustainability or quality or speed or whatever.

In the last two days, I've had meetings with three MegaCorps to discuss employee engagement. All three were struggling with how to engage very disparate cohorts of front-line employees given geographical, contractual and IT difficulties. While I was travelling to and from these sessions, I was working on my next book - on applying the 80:20 rule to sustainability - so the principle was at the forefront of my mind.

Probably the most useful thing I did for the companies was to challenge the underlying assumption that all employees needed to be engaged in sustainability on an equal basis. If you have limited resources (and who doesn't?), it is clearly more effective to focus on employees whose decision making has biggest effect on the footprint of the company.

One company estimated that the mass of hard-to-reach front-line workers they wanted to engage only determined about 10% of its environmental impact, whereas a much smaller cohort of relatively easy-to-reach white collar workers determined the vast majority of the other 90% (probably a 90:1 rule in this case). The conversation then changed, with almost audible relief, on to how to effectively engage the latter.

This kind of thinking is heretical to the 'mindfulness' movement who want everybody to be at one with nature every minute of the day. But in my mind, the choice between ideological perfection and making rapid substantial change with targeted intervention is a very easy one to make.



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28 July 2014

Donald Rumsfeld was right (about one thing, anyway...)

RumsfeldDonald Rumsfeld, US Secretary under George W Bush has long been derided for this explanation of the flimsiness of the evidence for going to war against Saddam Hussain.

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.

While this was a blatant attempt at obfuscation, on face value it is actually a very pithy treatise on the types of uncertainty we face in the world.

Rumsfeld's quote came up at last week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group where we were discussing how to make sustainability programmes resilient to sudden change - in particular those 'unknown unknowns' which can come over the horizon very quickly. One of the themes of the conversation was making sure that our faith in known knowns doesn't open us up to unknown unknowns. And you don't need to look beyond the current, horrific newspaper headlines to see how events in, say, Gaza or Ukraine, can spiral out of control very quickly.

One of the benefits of the shift to a sustainable economy is its resilience to such unknown unknowns. Solar panels and wind turbines are wonderfully oblivious to global crises and their effects on energy prices. A circular economy undermines the political power of those with monopolies on scarce resources (eg Russia and gas, China and rare earth metals). Sustainable use of resources such as water defuses potential conflicts in drought zones.

The problem is that we cling to our known knowns, but remain shocked when unknown unknowns happen. One of the key challenges is to get people to understand that the status quo is the risky option and sustainability is the low risk option, not the other way around.



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25 July 2014

Prioritise everything and you prioritise nothing...

go green

The UN has just released its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - when I saw there were 17 of them, my immediate thought was "how do you prioritise any of that?" Then I saw each goal was broken down into about 5-8 sub objectives and you end up with  somewhere in the the region of 150 objectives. Where to start? Can anybody actually recite all 17 off the top of their heads?

By comparison, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2015 numbered just eight with fewer sub-objectives. Just having glanced at them, I can remember a couple as I'm not overwhelmed with detail.

When I'm developing sustainability strategies with my clients (note: with, not for) I usually recommend 5-7 top level goals as we can get our heads around that number - and remember them. It is always better to make breakthrough progress on the 5 biggest issues than incremental progress on 100.


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23 July 2014

Mind the Credibility Gap

ants bridge

I'm continuing to plough my way through the background information from a sustainability training course I'm reviewing for a client and it's throwing up all kinds of interesting nuggets. One sustainability primer produced by a major NGO caught my eye.

The first section was a description of different sustainability definitions - the Brundtland definition, The Natural Step and the Forum for the Future Five Capitals Model. All very high level and philosophical.

The second section said the starting point of tackling sustainability was to engage stakeholders, with some good suggestions of who to consult and how to go about it.

And the third section said... um, well, no, there was no third section. That was it.

So this primer told us we face humongous, existential challenges and have to completely redesign the way we think about society, but the only tool it gave us to tackle them is a suggestion to talk to people we know about it.

I had an immediate flashback to the Live Earth concerts in 2007 where we were given apocalyptic accounts of the potential impacts of climate change - and then urged to turn of our phone chargers at night to 'do our bit.' Or all those books which describe the world's problems in great detail and then in the last chapter offer incredibly vague and untested solutions to actually solve them.

People aren't daft. If you tell them there's a huge problem but proffer trivial or ill-defined solutions, they simply won't believe you are credible - and rightly so.

If you want to tackle sustainability properly - whether at a global level or in an organisation - you not only have to describe the problem but to break it down into its constituent parts and sketch out solutions which are commensurate with the problem such as the circular economy, smart grid technology, the digital economy, etc etc etc.

It's good to talk - and I make a living out of it - but make sure you don't fall into the credibility gap by having nothing meaningful to talk about.


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21 July 2014

Will you be a carboniferous fossil in a low carbon economy?

old oil pump

Kodak is often held up as the archetypal extinction of the digital age. The photographic film giant invented but rejected the product - the digital compact camera - that lead to its own downfall. Now compact digital camera sales are falling fast as the smartphone fills that niche as the bedrock of a mobile digital lifestyle. Technological and socioeconomic evolution can be fast and brutal.

Now one of the key debates in sustainability is the 'carbon bubble' - the overvaluing of fossil fuel assets by markets which are not anticipating a transition to a low carbon economy. Joan Walley MP, chair of the UK Government's Committee on Climate Change, said back in March:

"The government and Bank of England must not be complacent about the risks of carbon exposure in the world economy. Financial stability could be threatened if shares in fossil fuel companies turn out to be overvalued because the bulk of their oil, coal and gas reserves cannot be burnt without further destabilising the climate."

Shell wrote to shareholders in May claiming that none of its proven resources would be stranded, putting its faith in Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) to allow it to burn fossil fuels in a low carbon economy. Given that CCS technology is still somewhat immature - and not evolving half as fast as, say, renewables - that's confidence.

It has to be remembered too, that assets come in lots of different forms, not just financial shares. If you have high carbon buildings, IT infrastructure, vehicles and/or manufacturing facilities, what will they be worth in a low carbon economy? I have had (good-natured) arguments with several large asset-intensive players who are assuming that the economy in 10 years time will pretty much look like the economy now and who refused to even consider the low carbon/circular economy scenario as a possibility.

Kodak thought that things wouldn't change the way they did. It didn't end well.

A sensible company would do a risk assessment on alternative scenarios at the very least rather than putting the blinkers on. Much better than sweating over euphemisms to explain plummeting asset values in an annual report in 5-10 years time.


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18 July 2014

Focus on the carrots as well as the sticks


I'm doing an expert review of some training material on sustainability over the summer to bring it up to date. The first thing I noticed was that the external resources all implicitly assume that business will move on sustainability only to protect itself - shifted forward by legislation, NGO pressure, consumer boycotts etc.

I'm not knocking those resources, as many organisations still live up to that assumption, but the best in sustainability see it as a core business principle and/or an engine of growth. And if we want to have a sustainable economy, that worldview needs to become prevalent as business will compete to be the greenest.

So are you constantly dodging the sticks, or are you chasing the carrots?


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16 July 2014

Reshuffling the green pack isn't enough, Mr Cameron

CameronHuskiesYesterday's reshuffle lead to big changes in the ranks of Conservative faces in the UK Government with the commentariat pouring over the nuances of every move. From an environmental view, the bad news was the loss of junior minister Greg Barker and his puppyish enthusiasm, the better news the retirement of climate sceptic Environmental Secretary Owen Paterson and the shifting of Michael Fallon to defence.

We don't know a huge amount about their replacements - Matt Hancock, Liz Truss and Amber Rudd - yet. I did find evidence of positive messages about the green economy from all three, although Hancock did sign a letter against onshore wind (while saying he was pro-renewables). My take is overall the balance has improved and there will be less drag on the two key pro-green Liberal Democrat ministers, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey and Business Secretary Vince Cable.

But, at the end of the day none of this matters too much.

Why not?

Because, as always, it all comes down to leadership.

David Cameron set out to detoxify the Tory brand with his husky-hugging in 2006 and, on becoming Prime Minister in 2010, declared that his Government would be "the greenest ever", but after that it has been mixed messages and a decided lack of strategic direction. It's not as if there isn't a story to tell with renewable energy nudging 20% of the country's electricity production and a booming green sector. But, buffeted by the UKIP threat from the right, climate sceptic Tory backbenchers and a sometimes hostile right-wing press, Cameron has tacked this way and that on green issues, meaning that opportunities have been missed and investors have blown hot and cold.

Unfortunately with the election looming, the polls unpredictable and Cameron's strategist pushing him to "scrape the barnacles off the boat" (ie simplify the overall message), I can't see a bold new green direction from the PM.


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14 July 2014

Making Sustainability Boring

CalendarI like my routine in the morning. Most mornings, when the alarm goes, I get up, get the littlest one up and change his nappy, put on my running gear, go and get the paper, make breakfast for everyone, read the paper while I eat mine, hunt for the kids' shoes, do the nursery/school run, go for a proper run, write this blog while cooling down, make a coffee, write my to-do list and then get on with what the day has in store for me.

I'm not that boring, I do like a variation now and again, but if I have to go for more than a few days outside the routine, I find myself craving the predictable start. It sets me up for the day.

I know I'm not alone - many if not most of us like to have our routines where we are almost sleepwalking for part of the day. This is why I react badly to the whole idea that sustainability has to be a continuous conscious effort - as promoted whole mindfulness, meditation, deep ecology movement. If it works for you, then fine, but we can't expect everyone to be constantly in touch with Gaia, 'cos it ain't gonna happen.

Yes learning new habits and new routines takes effort, but we should be making embedding sustainability into our everyday routines as frictionless as possible whether that's by providing top class cycling facilities so that colleagues can commute to work/exercise/fulfil their Tour de France fantasies as part of their daily routine. It should be easy to use teleconferencing, switch off lights/machines etc and recycle - preferably easier than doing the less-sustainable alternative.

Yes, make sustainability easy, routine, boring - in a good way!


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11 July 2014

We need MORE pedantry in sustainability

pedantryMy name is Gareth and I'm a pedant.

There. Said it.

It really annoys me when a word or phrase with a particular meaning gets so diluted by use that it becomes meaningless. Take 'staycation' - it was originally coined to mean holidaying at home - as in in your house - but now seems to mean holidaying in your own country. Of course this is what many if not most people do anyway, so the phrase becomes meaningless.

So I got a bit het up when I saw this report on 'the circular economy'. It includes the 'sharing economy' and extended life cycles as elements of the circular economy. The problem is they're not related - eg you can have a sharing economy that's not circular and vice versa, and of course you can have both, or neither.

So what?

The circular economy is an aim in itself with very particular requirements. If you start bolting every other sustainability idea onto the side of it, you start to muddy the waters and make it harder to implement. The phrase becomes meaningless and the goal fades from view.

So let's say what we mean - and mean what we say!


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9 July 2014

When the penny starts to drop...

ObamaIn his brilliant lead article in BusinessWeek last week (being a Brit, I read the magazine a week late), Mark Hertsgaard points out a revolutionary statement by Barack Obama when he was questioned about fossil fuel reserves by Thomas Friedman:

“We’re not going to be able to burn it all.”

What is fascinating about this is that Obama breaks through the standard mainstream politician's fudge on the dichotomy of "we must cut carbon/we must exploit our resources." Realising that the two are incompatible, Obama nailed the reality that so many simply gloss over.

An interesting progress test for your organisation is whether people in significant positions start to come to such conclusions. Like Friedman with Obama, you can test people gently by asking killer questions to get to the nub of the issue.

Of course, as Heisenberg would point out, if you measure it, you change it - usually for the good as people have to think through their answer. It is possible to have two conflicting opinions in your head and not go mad if you don't challenge them - and that's what a question does, forces you to resolve the issue.

Questions are a key Green Jujitsu technique - use them wisely.


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7 July 2014

Running through the tape...


What a smorgasbord of sport we're having at the minute - World Cup footie, Wimbledon and Le Tour De France en Yorkshire all on the same weekend. But the one profound moment came not from elite athletes easing their way up Côte de Blubberhouses on hi-tech carbon fibre two wheel wonders, but the rather more prosaic setting of the sack race at my eldest son's school sports day.

One young lady expertly bounded up the course until her toes were just short of the line. Oblivious of the serried ranks of parents urging her to take one more jump, she stood beaming proudly until the others passed her and took the top 3 places. It all ended in tears.

I find this with sustainability targets - far too many people seem to aim for just short (or even halfway) and then claim "we almost got there, didn't we do well?" But the best sustainability practitioners 'run through the tape' as athletes are encouraged to do - the race isn't over until you've cleared the line. That means planning to smash the target, not just meet it.



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4 July 2014

What sustainability practitioners can learn from politics...

CameronHuskiesOne of the interesting developments in the climate debate over the last month has been the publication of "Risky Business" - an assessment of the economic risks from climate change faced by the US. The three chairs of the project were Hank Paulson (Treasury Secretary under GW Bush), Michael Bloomberg (ex Mayor of New York) and Tom Steyer (a Hedge Fund Manager).

Above and beyond the well argued case for swift action, the really interesting bit is that Paulson and Bloomberg are from the Republican side of the political spectrum, and with a few notable exceptions, Mr Schwarzenegger, the Republican Party tends to argue that climate change isn't happening, never mind that we should do anything about it.

Rewind a couple of decades and the hot political topic was 'triangulation'. The idea was that elections are won from the centre ground, so if you assume your supporters are likely to follow you no matter what, you can steal support from the opposition by speaking their language. Bill Clinton was the pioneer, a Democrat who made the Republicanesque declaration "the era of big government is over." Tony Blair quickly followed suit in the UK, his "New Labour" a shotgun wedding of social democracy and faifree markets - the traditional territory of his Conservative opponents. Tory Prime Minister David Cameron returned the compliment by "hugging a husky" to commit his party  to tackling climate change and later making the hostage to fortune commitment to lead "the greenest Government ever."

The point of triangulation is that if you want to gain the support of the majority of your audience, then there is no point in aiming solely at the people who already support you - you have to speak to the unconverted. Risky Business will resonate with Republicans much more than Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, because Paulson is one of them and speaks their language.

In the same way, if you want to communicate sustainability, you should use the language of the part of the audience which 'doesn't get it' not the language adopted by those who do - and/or get someone the unconverted respect to deliver the message. Classic Green Jujitsu, in other words.

Of course we must also learn from the downfall of many a politician over the years - if you say you're gonna do it, you've gotta do it!


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2 July 2014

Taking Green/Ethical Products Mainstream

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I lay out a three point plan for taking green/ethical products into the mainstream.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.

If you'd like to send a question to Ask Gareth fire away!.


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