When it comes to targets, I'm a big proponent of zero: zero waste, zero carbon, zero persistent toxins. Zero focusses the mind in a way that, say, a 2% cut in carbon every year, never will. Zero simply demands attention.
On the flip side, I'm also a big fan of the 80:20 rule – focus on the small number of issues which will have biggest effect on the results (20% of inputs generally cause 80% of outputs), rather than sweating the little stuff. I've also been known to say 'perfection is the enemy of success'. A lot.
Yesterday, for the first time this year, I plonked a deckchair on my lawn and drank a cup of tea and thought. And I thought about whether these two mindsets are contradictory (not for the first time).
And there's an important difference. A goal of zero isn't really about absolute zero. 0.01% is definitely as good as zero, 1% is as good as zero, and, let's face it, even 10% isn't really a disaster. What really matters is the mindset change that zero drives through an organisation. With zero, you can't tinker endlessly with quick wins, you have to go for the big wins and that pushes you to the 80:20 Rule. Once you've got those balls rolling, you can go worry about whatever little stuff is left.
Zero means: 'no more business as usual, things are going to change around here.'
Regular readers will know I'm a great proponent of the 80:20 Rule in Sustainability – I wrote a book about it (see below). The 80:20 Rule says that you should target the relatively small number of actions which deliver the vast majority of change.
At the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group earlier this month, we discussed the application and limitations of the 80:20 approach. These are the times you should worry about the 'little stuff':
Engaging employees: switching stuff off and waste minimisation generally won't take you that far down your path to zero carbon, but people easily understand it, so you can use these quick wins as an 'entry drug' to get your colleagues hooked on Sustainability before moving on to the hard stuff.
Avoiding cynicism: for the same reason, laypeople will get more upset about disposable coffee cups than the use of a persistent organic pollutant. So you need to make sure you are seen to be tackling those iconic issues even while you're doing the big stuff that no-one will ever notice.
Continual improvement: If you have a zero carbon or zero waste target, you've still got to do the 20% of results as well as the 80%. So while you should prioritise the critical 20% of actions, it's worth keeping the other stuff tapping along (maybe combined with the engagement above).
But, and this is a big but, these exceptions should never overwhelm the rule. When push comes to shove, if you need to make a tough choice, go for the one which will deliver the biggest results.
We had a great Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group Meeting last Friday - I'll post more this Friday (I'm still writing the session up). But one comment really stuck with me over the weekend:
"The realisation that I didn't need everybody's buy-in, just the buy-in of those who matter [in this case], was really liberating, it really made the task achievable."
As I keep saying, the biggest barrier to Sustainability is the space between our ears. That applies just as much to practitioners as non-practitioners. We all get hidebound by self-limiting beliefs such as 'we have to get everybody bought into this' – Sustainability is difficult enough without placing (almost) impossible hoops to jump through along the way.
I recently posted 10 such self-limiting beliefs on a LinkedIn article which has attracted quite a bit of attention, most of it positive but some commentators are still wedded to ideals and political dogma over practicalities. That won't help them or anybody else move towards Sustainability.
The keystone of an arch is the one which completes it and lets the arch bear weight. Whether in a structural engineering sense it is as critical to success compared to the other stones as it is in figurative use is up for debate, but it is usually taken to mean the critical element in a system.
Who is the keystone of a sustainability programme? As a sustainability practitioner, it probably isn't you, I'm afraid to say. And the answer may not be as obvious as you think.
For example, I'm currently helping develop a sustainability strategy for a processor/distributer of perishable goods. In this case, from a technical point of view, the keystone is the guy in charge of the 'cold chain' – all the refrigeration whether in fixed locations or on wagons, plus the systems in place to ensure that the goods don't perish en route. This refrigeration is the biggest contributor to the company's carbon footprint and has a big effect on waste, too. We are going to have to do some highly targeted engagement to ensure that this individual and their team is fully on board and helping us with key parts of the strategy.
It's quite common that a small number of individuals in an organisation have disproportionate effect on sustainability (as the 80:20 rule suggests). Do you know who they are in your case, and what are you doing to engage with them?
In the latest edition of Ask Gareth, I advise Stephen (a pseudonym) on how he can break free of the 'green tape' – ISO14001 documentation and reporting requirements etc – and deliver some meaningful change in his organisation.
Is this a problem you suffer from? If so, do you have any suggestions for Stephen on top of my three ideas? Put it all in the comments below the video.
We are always after fresh questions for Ask Gareth. If you have one, please check out the past editions in case it has already been covered, and, if not, fire it through by clicking here.
To make a real change in, say, our carbon footprint, we have to tackle the big issues – space heating, transport, the extraction of raw materials etc. This is the essence of my book 'Accelerating Sustainability Using the 80:20 Rule' – we should stop sweating the little stuff and focus on what really matters.
The general public sees (or has been taught to see) environmental issues in terms of relatively trivial issues: single use plastic bags, leaving phone chargers plugged in, drinking bottled water etc. So if a sustainability practitioner breaks one of these populist 'green rules', they will be seen as hypocritical.
The more I think about it, we just have to accept this reality. To make a real difference we should be focussing our efforts on the 20% of 'levers' which will deliver 80% of potential improvements.
However we need to be mindful that our audience may not see our efforts through that prism; we must also make sure we are seen to do the right thing through their eyes. You should see these simple measures as an introduction to sustainability for non-experts – the first steps on the way to understanding the bigger picture.
As regular readers will attest, my most recent soapbox has been the use of the 80:20 Rule to get sustainability programmes out of the mire of incremental improvements and 'green tape' and onto a straight, fast road to our goals (see video above).
The awkward question is why does the sustainability movement tend towards the comfort zone of incremental improvements, bureaucratic systems and mediocrity? Why favour activity over outcome? Why stultify creativity and innovation?
I think it is, to a large degree, down to fear.
Fear of moving out of our comfort zone.
Fear of rocking the boat.
Fear of taking a punt.
Fear of failure.
Fear, possibly, of success.
Fear is a natural emotion, but we need to programme ourselves, Anthony Robbins-style, to fear the status quo rather than being scared of actually fulfilling our goals.
My new book, Accelerating Sustainability using the 80/20 Rule, draws heavily on The 80/20 Rule by Richard Koch. Koch takes the general idea of the 80/20 Rule – that 80% of outcomes are usually determined by just 20% of outcomes (and vice versa) – and illustrates it across a very wide range of applications, from investments to our personal lives. He proposes two different ways of using the rule, both of which can be applied to sustainability:
80/20 Analysis: where you carefully collect and analyse data to find the 'vital 20%' of inputs to focus on. An example of this would be when Procter & Gamble carried out a life cycle analysis of washing powder and discovered that 75% of energy use from cradle to grave was down to a single factor – heating the water in your washing machine. They then made this their number one priority.
80/20 Thinking: this is much more intuitive and based on experience. If you think about it, it is logical that the best place to start minimising waste is at the Goods Out end of a factory - this is where the product has maximum value and maximum environmental impact embedded in it. Likewise, it is perfectly clear that lengthy supplier questionnaires will absorb a huge amount of time and effort by both parties, but are unlikely to change much in practice - a more proactive approach is required.
To this, I would add a third - a combination of the two.
For example, on my intro video for the book (below), I use the case study of a company whose plans for employee engagement would have taken a huge effort to engage a very large number of people who have very little influence on the carbon footprint of the company. It took a combination of my intuition and their data to come to the conclusion that a different audience should be prioritised. By using 80/20 Thinking, the act of 80/20 Analysis can be streamlined, avoiding 'paralysis by analysis'.
For most, I think this combined approach will deliver best results.
Before Christmas, my fifth book, Accelerating Sustainability using the 80/20 Rule, was published. I'm really excited about it as it sets out a manifesto for sustainability practitioners to cast off the chains of unimportant detail that hold us back and really start to make leaps forward.
The 80/20 Rule says that 20% of our efforts deliver 80% of results, so we should focus on that vital 20% and relegate the other 80% - the trivial many - to the 'nice to have' tray. Here's why using the 80/20 rule can help you get to sustainability faster:
You declutter, getting rid of all the trivial stuff which clogs your to do list - whether to have paper or plastic coffee cups, how to keep your green champions happy, where to source recycled pencils - and focusses your thinking on the actions which will really make a difference.
You focus your limited resources - personal energy, time, goodwill and cash - on the issues and people which will really make a difference (the video intro above gives a great example of how this works in employee engagement).
It prevents you implementing dubious 'solutions' such as green champions just because everybody else is doing the same, and forces you to justify your efforts to yourself.
You avoid paralysis by analysis: 80/20 thinking says when you have enough information to act, then act.
You avoid paralysis by perfection: because 80/20 thinking only targets 80% of the problem, you tend to implement the kind of pragmatic, effective solutions which work but which perfectionists hate.
The 80/20 Rule can feel brutal, even Darwinian, but given the pressing need to address these issues, we need to be a lot more pragmatic and a lot less idealist and get things moving!
Join our webinar on 28 January 2015 to learn more about how the 80/20 Rule can revolutionise your sustainability programme. Click here for more.
On first reading, that sounds great. But is it really, in practice?
I haven't had a job description for over eight years, but I recall there was always some vaguely worded phrase such as "uphold the values of the organisation" which was never mentioned again. If this sustainability proposal is implemented in this way, then everybody would get a bullet point "Contribute to sustainability." Full stop. Job done.
And what would change? Nothing.
To make a difference, you need to translate your overall sustainability objectives so they are relevant individual job roles. And if you are going to do that for everyone, that is a huge task. And how long are you going to spend agonising over the job description of, say, a receptionist who doesn't make many sustainability-related decisions throughout a normal day?
The 80/20 Rule tells us that, in general, a small number of people have disproportionate influence on any outcome. So it makes sense to spend your limited time and energy on that cohort. As Ramon Arratia of Interface puts it:
We tell our employees about Mission Zero and what they have to do, but we only engage intensively with employees who carry influence on sustainability. Engagement for the sake of it doesn’t have any value. So we identify the people with biggest influence on Mission Zero and try to enable them to use that influence in a positive way.
This is classic 80/20 thinking. Focus your efforts on the small number with the largest influence rather than trying to reach everybody with a diluted effort. I give another employee engagement example in the introduction video for my new book.
Don't forget that if you want to learn more about 80/20 thinking and sustainability, we have a webinar on 28th January on that very topic. More details here.
It's the traditional time to set ourselves goals for the year ahead (why we pick the dark, dank days of January for this challenge, I'll never know). As usual, we are totally committed in 2015 to helping you propel your sustainability programme forward, so here are some things you should do right now:
Sign up to the Low Carbon Agenda - full of hints and tips every month, but January's edition will be have some special offers to mark the publication of my fifth book, Accelerating Sustainability using the 80/20 Rule, including free 1 to 1 coaching.
It was written to change the way we address sustainability issues. As I explain in the video above, I am fed up with the mucking about that passes for progress in our industry - all the bureaucracy, over-precise but inaccurate analysis and low expectations.
The 80/20 Rule says there is often an imbalance between effort and results - typically 20% of effort results in 80% of results, and the other 80% of our efforts deliver just 20%. If you focus on the former and throw off the latter, you'll get much better results, faster - it's a mindset thing.
I'll be hosting a webinar on the book on 28 January where I'll be giving you an insight into how this mindset can change how you approach everything from employee engagement to your sustainability strategy - you can register here.
The first four of my rules of pragmatic environmentalism were mainly aimed at the old-school green activism mindset which in my opinion holds us back from the rapid progress we need to make. But this last, fifth rule is aimed at us all.
For too long we have been told that we face existential threats, but are given '10 Top Tips' such as reusing plastic bags and not leaving the TV on standby. While there's nothing wrong with doing these, they won't deliver sustainability on their own and the cognitive dissonance between the threat and the action can switch people off as its like firing a pea shooter at an aircraft carrier.
We need to go big, or go home.
Two weeks ago today I submitted the manuscript for my next DoShort book, provisionally titled Accelerating Sustainability using the 80:20 Rule. The 80:20 rule says that, in many cases, 20% of actions/effort/input give us 80% of results and 80% of actions give us just 20%. This is a phenomenally powerful tool as it allows us to cut away all the extraneous activity - all those networks of green champions, endless supplier questionnaires and jute bags of green goodies - and focus on those things which will make a real difference - such as ditching a low sustainability supplier in favour of one with good sustainability credentials, or substituting secondary materials for virgin materials, or purchasing an electric vehicle fleet.
Along with the 80:20 Rule, a restless mindset of "good, we've done that, but it's not enough, how can we do it better?" will keep you out of your comfort zone and continually reaching for the next level.
And one of the most powerful moves is the stretch target - if you set your sights on cutting your carbon emissions by, say, 50% in 10 years, you will come up with much better projects than you will if your target is 5% by next year.
So set the bar high, clear it, then push it higher. You may just surprise yourself!