We had another great Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting yesterday, focussing on the supply chain (full summary next week). Almost every meeting ends up discussing the supply chain to some degree, and in turn the supply chain meeting was dominated by the need for engagement of procurement staff and suppliers. There's something of a hierarchy of subjects developing of which engagement is always at the base.
One engagement theme that emerged yesterday was how external experts and speakers can influence people in a way an internal change agent can't. This is kind of the opposite of 'not invented here', but it is certainly true that people often give more credence to an outsider with suitable status telling them about change than someone they know. We demonstrated this last Tuesday by getting Colin Thirlaway of Stanley Black & Decker to open proceedings to demonstrate that Sustainability was a real world business issue, not just a theoretical one.
I spend a lot of time facilitating workshop sessions for my clients. In this role my outsider status works really well, and I have one golden rule to maintain that independence:
I will never, ever become a proponent of 'the party line'.
Doing so would not only instantly destroy my position as the honest broker, but on a practical level, I will never understand the context or sensitivities sufficiently well to win an argument. If there's a message to be communicated, then I insist that a staff member take that role.
In fact, I've turned down the chance of a lucrative training contract with one of the world's largest brands because they insisted that a dubious health claim be included in the content. I couldn't defend that to anyone who challenged it, so I said no.
In other words, use an outsider to help with your engagement, but don't expect them to become an insider.
Yesterday I was facilitating a workshop for the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Durham University. The purpose was to find ways to further embed Sustainability issues (social, environmental and economic) into the syllabus. I entered the room with a touch of manflu and no little trepidation - academics can be a tough audience as they, rightly, have a culture of questioning everything.
Here's how I approached it to make sure I didn't lose the room:
I went straight into the first session without more than a 2 minute pre-amble. No pointless round of introductions to put everyone to sleep.
We started with a presentation by a client, Colin Thirlaway, global compliance manager for Stanley Black & Decker. Colin made a powerfully persuasive case that, as SBD's 20,000 product lines had to be designed for a sustainable economy, the engineers of the future will need plenty of appropriate skills and knowledge. In doing so, he killed off any doubt that this was an important subject. This made the rest of the workshop really easy.
Next we split into groups and asked why Sustainability should be in the syllabus. This doubled down on the message that it was a critical subject – and the classic Green Jujitsu technique of getting delegates to sell sustainability to themselves.
The following segments followed up the "Why?" with "What topics are required?", "Where in the syllabus?" and "How should Sustainability be presented?". For each question, delegates had to write their own ideas on Post-Its before they came together. This stops any individual dominating any group and captures the full gamut of thoughts.
As usual, it went swimmingly, although my brain got a little fugged as the Lemsip wore off towards the end. Now I've just got to write it all up...
There can't have been a more disconsolate figure than that of Bradley Wiggins, almost certainly the greatest cyclist of our generation, on the BBC yesterday explaining the conditions under which he (legally) took a steroid injection before his 2012 Tour de France win.
You are probably aware of the backstory – a group of Russian hackers have taken revenge on the sporting world for the banning of many of its athletes for illegal doping by releasing the medical records of others, in particular the therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) which allow athletes to get treated with banned substances for particular medical conditions. And Wiggins' name popped up with a TUE for a steroid which has long been linked with cheating in the sport, taken at a particularly convenient time.
The hackers have certainly won this one as Wiggins and his former Team Sky have long made a virtue of a zero tolerance to doping. In his 2012 ghost-written memoir Wiggins claimed to have a no-injection policy, but now claims he was referring to intravenous injections, not intramuscular ones (a bizarre distinction as illegal doping can involve either or both). And only a few weeks ago, Wiggins lambasted women's world champion Lizzie Armitstead (now Deignan) for missing doping tests.
On the other hand, the TUE system approved the dose and the 40mg dose he took is the standard medical injection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I can't find precise details of how much the dopers took, except that it can be 10-100 times as high (I don't know how much you have to take to make a difference to performance). If the system is wrong then change the system.
Well, at the end of the day, Wiggins is not being judged in a doping investigation (because he didn't dope), but in the court of public opinion with the mainstream media as prosecutor in chief. And, as many disgraced politicians will tell you, that court looks to the spirit of the law, rather than the letter, and it looks as if Wiggins and Team Sky fell short of the expectations they created for themselves.
There are obvious parallels here between sporting ethics and business ethics. In both, the media will be sniffing out any perceived hypocrisy and the public will not give the subject the benefit of the doubt. Transparency can go a long way, particularly by qualifying any broad statement of principle. And, it goes without saying, being seen to walk the walk as well as talk the talk is all important.
By all means set yourself a high ethical bar, but you better clear it by a wide margin of error.
Regular readers will know I'm (more than) a bit obsessive about road cycling. I will walk past the shiniest, most expensive motorbike without a glance, but if there's a carbon fibre road bike locked to a railing beside it, I will stop. Doesn't matter if I'm running late for something, I will pause and admire.
A motorbike fanatic would think I'm mad. They'd stop at the motorbike and admire the power, the transmission or the chrome before striding past the carbon fibre object of my desire without noticing it. An aero seat post or a Di2 derailleur would mean nothing to them, just as much as the latest supercharger (or whatever) would mean nothing to me.
This shows how the filters in our brain act so we ignore the vast majority of the world around us. The filters only draw our attention to what is important to each of us. This has critical implications for engaging people in Sustainability: if someone is already ambivalent to sustainability, then their mental filters will block out (almost) every sustainability message you throw at them.
Green Jujitsu is the art of finding the overlap between what turns your audience on and the Sustainability agenda – and starting engagement there. Because you are packaging Sustainability with their interests, the message will get past their filters – and you get engagement. So, if you want to engage an engineer in Sustainability, then challenge them to solve Sustainability problems. Engineers love solving problems, so the message gets through their filters. And, if you're really good at this, you'll find their filters start to open and let more and more sustainability stuff through.
George Osborne may have been unceremoniously booted out of the UK Treasury by incoming PM Theresa May, but one of his legacies will live with us for decades as May rubber-stamped his deal with the Chinese Government to finance new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point. For a man who denigrated renewables on value for money grounds, Osborne's parsimony deserted him on Hinkley, with even nuclear's biggest proponents wincing at the cost of the new facility.
Unrelated, but related, The Independent's Sean O'Grady launched an anti-cyclist tirade at the news that West Midlands Police are fining drivers who skim rider's elbows. He completely omits to mention that the crackdown was in response to the Police's own evidence that only 2% of serious collisions involving cyclists were the cyclist's fault.
Both can only be explained by ingrained mindsets. Osborne clearly buys the old "renewables too expensive, nuclear too cheap to meter" myth and O'Grady plays the old "cyclists aren't real road users, so should simply keep out of the way" saw. Neither men are stupid, but they manage to argue stupid things because humans tend to see the world through a rather fixed worldview.
I cleave to the belief that the biggest barrier to sustainability is just six inches wide, the space between our ears. For sustainability to become the norm, we've got to change these, and many other, worldviews. Rants, like mine above, won't work to change those minds – we've got to find ways of finding the common ground and moving on from there. What I call Green Jujitsu.
What is a Sustainability Strategy? Is it just a document containing all your targets? Is it something to show your stakeholders? Is it a baseline against which you can measure progress? Or is it something more than that?
I saw this quote from Stuart Cross on general business strategy this morning which applies equally to the subject of sustainability:
A strategy doesn't just impact the 'big' investment choices; it drives a myriad of decisions of actions taken by colleagues and managers from across your organisation on a daily basis. Like a magnet being waved over iron filings, a strategy creates alignment and ensures that everyone is pointing in the same direction.
I really like that magnet analogy and it applies to all the truly great sustainability strategies: M&S's Plan A, Interface's Mission Zero or Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan. These transcend mere documents or targets, they become more like a Roman legion's standard for the troops to follow into battle - and rally around when things go wrong.
Does your sustainability strategy do this? Or does it just tick the boxes?
Fascinating article in this week's Economist, traditionally no friend of sustainability, about investing in low carbon firms. They quote research by BlackRock who found that companies in the top quintile for cutting their carbon intensity outperformed the MSCI World Index by 4% since 2012, while those in the bottom quintile trailed the Index by 5%.
On the downside, the author quotes other research which shows 'green mutual funds' trailed others between 1991 and 2014. The blame for this is put on volatile fossil fuel markets and Government policies. My own (rather modest) green investments seem to have flat-lined over the last couple of years, deflating my enthusiasm slightly.
The article also mentions that the cost of LEDs has plummeted by 90% since 2010, showing how quickly green technologies are still maturing. It will be very interesting to see how this and similar price drops through economies of scale and innovation across the green tech sector will impact in the medium term.
The conclusion from all this is that while the green sector itself is still immature and thus risky, embedding sustainability into a conventional company will almost certainly reap dividends.
My regular paper is The Guardian, somewhat under sufferance ever since my previous favourite The Independent started to shrink in size and quality about a decade ago. One of the things that bugs me about The Grauniad is its insistence on turning to novelists for wisdom on the big issues of the day whether terrorism, migration or climate change. Why listen to experienced diplomats, politicians, soldiers, scientists or engineers when you can ask Hilary Mantel what she thinks?
Worryingly, Ghosh has few solutions to offer. “I am not sure there are solutions. The problem is of such a scale that we are dwarfed by it,” he said.
Maybe it's just me, but it doesn't worry me much at all that a novelist doesn't know how to solve climate change. We have plenty of people who know how to do that. They're beavering away at making it happen quickly enough while Mr Ghosh tours India in a self-appointed role as a prophet of doom.
As the second most populated country in the world, and developing fast, India is currently pivotal to the whole battle for climate change. The recent G20 communiqué on the Paris Agreement was diluted by the Indian Government worried about economic impacts. If the arts really can deliver change, it will have persuade the country's leadership that tackling climate change will also deliver economic and social benefits, if they do it right. That's going to take a positive vision from Ghosh and his colleagues.
You would have to have a very strange existence if your whole footprint was "greatly reduced" and all your waste was eradicated simply by changing from disposable earplugs to reusable ones. Of course they mean that reusables are better than disposables, but they should say that.
Yesterday the family headed up to the National Trust property of Wallington Hall in Northumberland – me on my bike, the rest by car. We've been there many times, but there was a new exhibit, tucked away behind the greenhouses, which blew us away.
It was a simple sand pit with some buildings and bridges, but it had a wonderful twist. It had a Kinect hung above it which measured the 'altitude' of the sand at any point, then used a projector to overlay a relief map in real time, with contours, colours and 'water'. So if you dug a pit, it would 'fill' with blue water. If you held something over the top, it acted as a cloud and 'rained' on the area below and the water would drain downhill.
Just sand, light and a bit of clever technology - the kids (including those 40+) loved it. Utterly enchanting and engaging.
When I posted the above pic on social media last night, we found out via a couple of interactions that the system was developed at Newcastle University. They're going to use it to communicate potential impacts of climate change. Another of our friends who works for a conservation charity wants to get hold of one as well for their outreach work.
It was a wonderful reminder to me of how people like to learn through experience, not just being told something. Immersing people in a system, whether real or virtual will give a much more lasting impact than telling them some facts.
The best engagement for sustainability includes as much experience and interactivity as possible. Whether it's seeing (a tiny fraction of) the mountain of waste society produces with your own eyes or getting a test drive in an electric vehicle, it is a very powerful engagement tool.
An engineer says the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.
I'm an engineer so, naturally, I'm an entirely rational person who acts purely on objective evidence. Except of course I'm not, I just like to think I am. Like everybody else us engineers are irrational, fearful, illogical and we distort our perception of the world to match our inner feelings. But I do make a real effort to read both sides of an argument, if only to understand which side I am rejecting – the most depressing thing in the world is people who are so (un)sure of their worldview that they boycott newspapers who write something that challenges it.
Speaking of the press, I heard a quote attributed to Nassim Taleb yesterday along the lines of "Judging the world from newspapers is like judging a city by spending a night in its hospital emergency room" (I'm taking that on trust, Google wouldn't cough up the original words). This reflects the fundamental rule that good news rarely if ever dominates the flow of negativity from the media. So we get the tales of gloom and doom from both sides of the green debate – the "we're all doomed!" brigade and the "eco-loons want to impoverish us" squad. Any good news, like the fact that 25% of the UK's electricity is now from renewables without any adverse effect on our lifestyle, passes by both groups without notice.
But it's more than who's right and who's wrong – both negative points of view switch people off. Only hope can galvanise us. Martin Luther said "I have a dream" not "I have a nightmare" (as pointed out by Shellenberger and Nordhaus more than a decade ago). The people who will deliver Sustainability are not the doomsters, but those who grasp the opportunity to change, like the late Ray Anderson of Interface, Tesla's Elon Musk or Unilever's Paul Polman.
My influence is less than these guys, but I do my best to counterbalance the doom. As well as orienting my consultancy, training and coaching towards pragmatic solutions, I have developed the habit of seeking out and sharing good news, ideally on a daily basis. This is not because I think the sustainability challenge is trivial, but because, without hope, the challenge is impossible.