Sometimes I just can't help myself challenging what I see as inadvertently dangerous statements on Sustainability. One tweet I saw yesterday was about how little business understands the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and that this was a Bad Thing. My view is that the 17 SDGs and their multifarious subgoals do not provide a suitable structure for corporate sustainability. So I couldn't resist weighing in.
What problem have I got with the SDGs? It's the same with trying to adopt, say, the ten One Planet Living principles. There's nothing wrong with OPL, but can you recite all ten principles without looking? I bet no-one can recite the 17 SDGs without hesitating. Are all 10OPLs/17SDGs priorities for every business? After all, these frameworks are designed to be universal, and, if you prioritise everything, you prioritise nothing.
Imagine Google trying to come up with a statement on land use. Yes, they could plant a few extra shrubs to attract butterflies at the Googleplex, but I'd rather see them focus efforts on their carbon footprint (which they do) as that will make most difference – and be most meaningful to employees and other stakeholders. Leave land use to the food, fibre and forestry industries.
There's a deeper reason why you shouldn't try to adopt someone else's framework wholesale – the concept of 'Not Invented Here'. You will never, ever get as much buy-in for an imported off-the-shelf system than you do for one which has been created by those charged with delivering on it. A inclusive process of creating the strategy and setting the goals can be used to help create the culture required to deliver them (one of the reasons why we base our strategy development process around workshops for key decision makers).
Strategy + culture = success.
Take one of my clients, Interface. When founder Ray Anderson created Mission Zero, the overall target was a zero footprint by 2020. They break this down to 7 goals which are appropriate for the business – which is good as 7 is roughly the limit to the number of things you can easily remember. They call these the seven faces of Mount Sustainability, all of which have to be climbed. My pedantic side says "but you only need to climb one face of a mountain...", but that quibble doesn't matter – Interface created the analogy, they own it, and it works for them, big time. That's what matters.
So, use the SDGs, One Planet Living or whatever as a checklist to pick and choose from, but build the strategy that works for you and your colleagues, not something off the shelf.
As I've said before, our big theme in 2017 is Sustainability Conversations as this is where we believe breakthroughs lie. But the critical question is how do you get the right people interested in having that conversation in the first place? The answer lies in our old friend, Green Jujitsu.
Green Jujitsu is the art of framing Sustainability in terms which each audience will find irresistible. That means finding the overlap between Sustainability and that person's/those people's perspective on life. So for an Technical Director talk technical solutions, for a CFO talk £/$/Euros, for a CEO talk competition.
In practice this means the following:
Engineering an opportunity to start a discussion on their terms ("Can you help me with something?");
Using their language, imagery and idioms, not impenetrable Sustainability jargon;
Put the ball in their court by asking killer questions (eg "our competitors have just launched a non-toxic version of our product, how should we respond?");
Listen to their responses and encourage them to keep trains of thought going by asking follow up questions (this is essentially how I do my client coaching and it is very powerful).
Summarising conclusions and next steps at the end of the conversation.
Key to all this is realising that Sustainability success will not be so much about how well you do your job as how well you can get other people to do their job. Let them take credit for success even if you've had to drag them kicking and screaming to that point.
We'll be discussing sustainability conversations and green jujitsu in more detail on our webinar on 18th January - more details here.
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.
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.
I'm coming to the end of one of my favourite ever projects – some research into what motivates a client's employees to make greener decisions. I started off with a review of the academic literature and what struck me was how inconsistent it was. I've just checked for any new academic papers published in the meantime, and I found the same. Every study or meta-study I read came up with different conclusions, which is very frustrating.
If I had to nominate the three, highly interlinked, factors I think make the most difference, I would plump for:
Leadership: commitment flows from the top, and transformational leadership is required to deliver the scale of change required.
Culture: few people will stride out on their own, they need to feel they have their peers at their side.
Participation: directly involving people in Sustainability is the surefire method of getting them enthused and will give them a deeper understanding of the issues than any lunchtime lecture.
OK, that's just a gut instinct answer, but given the paucity of evidence from academia, it seems as good a guide as any.
Very belated happy valentine to you - the least romantic day of the year has passed chez Kane without a murmur once again.
Last week, on a session about my Green Jujitsu approach to engaging people in sustainability, I found myself talking about making an emotional connection with sustainability. Now while some people get a bit obsessed about the topic, I'm not really talking about emotion in a lovey-dovey sense. Rather I'm talking about connecting with people's sense of identity.
So engineers love to solve problems, so get them solving sustainability problems. Healthcare professions care about their patients so talk to them about health, whether cycling to work or switching off unnecessary equipment in wards to help patients sleep. Accountants don't feel happy without facts and figures, so give them the numbers. Business owners care about the competition, so tell them what their competitors are doing. Captains of industry care about their legacy, so play on that.
In every case you are tapping into the drive that gets these guys out of bed in the morning. That's what I mean by an emotional connection.
I was reminded of this on Monday at the sustainability strategy workshop I was running for a client, when a participant pleaded:
"Please, please, please, don't propose another bloody culture change programme!"
Or as Peter Drucker put it:
"Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got."
This is the essence of my Green Jujitsu approach to engagement. Find the overlap between the existing culture and sustainability and start there. So for engineers, talk engineering sustainability, for healthcare professionals, talk, say, air quality or fuel poverty, for journalists, use human interest stories and infographics*.
Speak the language of your audience and they'll absorb sustainability into the existing culture. After all, it's behaviour you need to change; if culture changes over time, then that's a bonus.
* note these aren't exclusives – you can use infographics for engineers, but you should use 'technical' imagery in those infographics.
I've had a number experiences recently with trying to get a large organisation to change its mind. It is quite incredible the number of ways bureaucrats can express the view "Yep, we got it wrong, but no, we're not going to do anything about it" usually involving euphemisms like "there are clearly lessons to be learned." I've kept firing back strongly argued missives, more to make myself feel better than any expectation that someone might actually say "Yes, we were wrong and here's how we're going to fix it."
I often talk about 'institutional inertia' – the way big organisations resist change. It can be quite brutal – years ago I interviewed an amazingly inspirational sustainability director for a project I was doing – I marvelled at what she had achieved with no resources. I heard a year or two later that she had been made redundant. The person who told me this news explained "I think she was a bit too high octane for them" – in other words she was too good at her job and it was ruffling too many feathers.
It's easy to get despondent, but there are ways to work around the inertia. I'm writing this in a hotel room in Birmingham before a client workshop - the third in a series of four we are running to develop a sustainability strategy. That might seem like overkill, and, yes, I could put together a reasonable strategy with the information I have now, but a. it may miss out crucial detail which I don't know I don't know (hat-tip Donald Rumsfeld), but more importantly, b. I won't get the same buy-in if key people aren't involved all the way along the path.
My number #1 rule of tackling institutional inertia is:
We've just bitten the bullet and bought a new family car. Having three kids needing car seats/boosters limited our options massively – few 5 seaters have enough space across the back seat, so, after much head-scratching, we settled on a Ford S-Max 7 seater (above).
Despite being a much bigger beast, the S-Max has slightly lower CO2 emissions per km than our old VW Golf (138 g/km compared to 143 g/km). That salved our carbon consciences somewhat (along with the fact our annual mileage is low and much of what we do do offsets flying).
One option we didn't consider was a spacious SUV – for obvious reasons.
Hold on. For 'obvious reasons'? What are those?
Er, that SUVs destroy the planet with their gas-guzzling and their carbon-belching?
Do they? A Nissan X-Trail SUV emits 129-138 g CO2/km depending on whether you go 2WD or 4WD. The lower end of that is not far off the average for the UK and better than our S-Max.
If I'm honest, I didn't check whether the received wisdom on SUVs was correct until it was too late. If I'm really, really honest, the more powerful motive was that I didn't want to be seen to be driving an SUV no matter what.
Over the summer, I've been reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman's brilliant treatise on decision making. The central premise is that we generally make decisions on intuition based on previous experience, rather than careful, objective analysis. And, it seems, the 'SUV = evil' meme was more deeply embedded in my mind than I'd ever realised.
I'll be musing more on Kahneman over the next few weeks, but, in short, every sustainability practitioner should read it.
The phrase "get people out of their comfort zone" is a cliché which gets bandied around a lot, but have you ever sat down and thought about it?
During my sustainability training and/or engagement workshops, I used to try and split up work teams to get them out of their comfort zones. Then a couple of times I got lazy and didn't bother, and found that people performed better in the workshop when they were with colleagues they knew.
I recently found this diagram in a paper by Moran and Tame (Journal of Sustainability Education, 2013) which may explain this. It comes from the field of experiential adventure education.
It basically says, yes, to make real change, you have to get people out of the comfort zone. But, if you drag them too far, they end up in the panic zone and flee or freeze. In between is the stretch zone where you get peak performance and peak learning.
The sustainability workshops I run are challenging to most people and will stretch them. To throw them into the unknown without their colleagues around them was probably pulling people towards the panic zone – not full on meltdown panic, but "I don't like this, so I'm going to keep my mouth shut" discomfort.
So by all means challenge people, but don't drive them too hard or you will lose them.
Recent events have reminded of that legendary, probably apocraphyl, letter from a bank manager to a spendthrift student:
"We have increased your overdraft to £1,000. Please note that this is a limit, not a target."
This attitude appears to have been adopted by the UK Government on carbon and renewable targets – they are seen as just that, targets, to be met and no more. Taking this view narrows mindsets and efforts down to 'business as usual plus a bit'. The 'plus a bit' tends to cost us extra, rather than going for renewable breakthroughs which would drive innovation, economic growth and job creation – a worthwhile investment in anybody's book.
This conservative attitude is not limited to politics either. I have heard the words "what's the least we can do to get out of jail?" uttered in one of my sustainability workshops (but we ended up raising the bar, not lowering it by the end of the session).
In another session a delegate mused on a 10 year target of 40% reduction in carbon footprint, saying "4% per year, mmm, I think that's doable." I challenged him – to get to 40% probably means not reducing carbon very much for several years while installing the kit or transforming the supply chain to deliver 40%. If you chunk it down, you'll exhaust the 4% improvements – and yourself – in a couple of years.
To deliver the kind of change we need requires a change in mindset. A Big Hairy Audacious Goal is a key step to delivering that new mindset.
I've long argued that Leadership is the difference between the best at sustainability and the rest. Leadership is responsible for two critical sustainability issues:
Strategy: all the goals, objectives, projects and resources required to deliver change for sustainability;
Culture: the attitude of employees to the sustainability programme.
Arguably the second outweighs the first – "Culture eats strategy for breakfast" as the quote attributed to Peter Drucker goes.
Towers Watson's Global Workforce Study 2014 gave an interesting insight into the relationship between the effectiveness of leadership and management and the engagement of employees (which in turn is related to how likely those employees are to deliver on strategy) (see below).
In other words, to get employees effectively engaged you need both leadership and management. The remarkable thing is how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. While this is for general engagement with the job, there is no reason to think it is any different for sustainability in particular.
It also gives weight to my views on the critical importance leadership – and my description of middle management as "the place green projects go to die." So we need to get the whole line management aligned to sustainability.
Last week, I finally caught "The Smartest Guys in the Room" – the story of the Enron scandal. If you have an interest in business ethics or corporate social responsibility, it is a damning tale of greed, egotism and self-delusion.
Imagine the culture in an organisation where the (perceived) weakest 15% of employees are fired each year. Where the organisation can report profits on energy projects which haven't even been built (or sometimes never were). Where people can be given multi-million dollar bonus for those imaginary profits. In such a poisonous environment, you can imagine that organisation deliberately withholding energy to the State of California until blackouts to push up electricity prices, so they can sell that energy at a premium.
And the extraordinary thing is how many people went along with it. The documentary referenced the Milgram experiments where ordinary people were persuaded to administer dangerous electric shocks to screaming actors (I had never seen the footage of these legendary and terrifying sessions before - truly harrowing).
And how did it end? In tears. The house of cards collapsed, the authorities started investigating and, of the two smartest guys in the room, Jeff Skilling went to jail and Kenneth Lay died awaiting his fate. In a word: Dumb.
But the lesson is, once again, culture beats everything else and culture flows from the top.
I'm a sucker for chocolate cake. You put a piece in my view and I want it. What's more, I'll probably eat it. I'm one of those Dads who will hide behind a cupboard door to stop the kids seeing me snarfle a chocolate biscuit. The temptation is always too strong. I am weak.
Many 'greens' act like food fascists, sneering at the contents of the shopping baskets of those ahead of them in the supermarket queues. It might make them feel better, but it won't do anything to stop obesity.
You can blame politicians, but frankly, it takes a brave soul to stand up and say to the country we must sacrifice short-term gain for the sake of our grandchildren. Actually, it's very easy to say, many do now say it, and many will support the words. The brave bit comes from putting words into action – and we must support them when they do, not the usual fusillades of 'nowhere near good enough' from those who have never had to make a big public decision in their lives.
The answer? I find I can drop the sugar hit if I get it out of my routine. Likewise we've got to get fossil fuels out of the routine of Joe and Josephine Public. We've got to make sustainability the new normal: easy, intuitive, reflexive, unthinking, desirable. Only then will we wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
It made me think, though, about the process of people becoming eco-aware.
For most people, it is a gradual process of ramping awareness until one event tips them over the edge. My own 'Road to Damascus' moment – seeing massive ecological damage from a nickel smelter in arctic Russia – was less about awareness of the problem and more about the realisation that, as an engineer, I could and should do something practical about such damage. But it often requires an immersive experience to do this – reading a plaintive article in the press is rarely enough.
In my experience, true Damascene conversions should be treated with care. I have met too many snake oil salesmen and obnoxious self-righteous gits who claim to have undergone such a zero to 100% overnight. And just imagine being preached at by Jeremy Clarkson. Shiver.
I had a fantastically green night out in London on Tuesday. After an impromptu diversion into a St Patrick's, er, Month drinks reception at the Irish Embassy, my good friend Fiona Harvey, eminent Grauniad environment journo, took me to the extraordinarily posh Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall for dinner and, appropriately enough, an after-dinner talk.
The talk was 'Sustainable Business Leadership' by Sir Ian Cheshire, outgoing CEO of the Kingfisher Group (which owns B&Q). The knighthood was awarded for "services to business, sustainability, and the environment" and what Sir Ian said showed it was richly deserved – here are the quotes I scribbled down:
I am attracted to business with a mission and a purpose.
Don’t you want to work for a business which makes a difference?
Sustainability is the engine for our business.
Diversity in teams leads to a huge step forward; don’t pick people like you.
You have to recognise which decisions matter and what doesn’t: 4 or 5 big calls will determine 80% of your impact.
We live in a hyper-transparent world, you can’t pretend anymore.
Do you want to be moderately less evil or net positive? The latter’s much more exciting.
You’ve got to give people permission to try stuff.
It takes an incredibly long time to explain sustainability to your business – I found it took at least 5 attempts.
You’ve got to make your solutions relevant to the DNA of your business.
You’ve got to translate sustainability for people. There’s no Russian word for sustainability, but Russians love their forests and their water quality.
If you don’t understand the warp and weft of your business, sustainability will not work.
Corporates create space for Governments to act.
CEO questions can drive innovation.
Our drive for FSC kitchens cost us £30m, but the perception of quality in the marketplace went up.
Our biggest problem isn’t greenwash but greenhush. We don’t talk enough about what we are doing.
Ultimately you need sustainability solutions which scale. Without scalability, we won’t get sustainability.
My advice for anyone trying to deliver sustainability in their organisation is to plunder that list for ideas.
Disclosure: The dinner was a private one, so I have run the quotes past Sir Ian to check he was OK with them going public.
I was once solemnly informed "We won't get to Sustainability without Mindfulness."
If you don't know what Mindfulness is, it's apparently "the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment." And it's all the rage.
My response to my pious friend was "Why not?"
He struggled to answer that one. Maybe I wasn't being accepting enough.
And the more I think about it, the more I think he's 100% wrong.
We cannot function as human beings if we have to be entirely conscious of everything we do - we'd spend all our time focussing on breathing and walking and sitting so much we'd never do anything else. If we require a conscious focus on every sustainability-related decision every day, it'll never be fully integrated into our routines. You can only focus on one thing at a time.
Much better to take the sustainable option by default, by habit or because it's the path of least resistance. We need to design our world so you don't even have to think about sustainability - it just happens.
Frankly, I think we have to be more mindful of nonsensical pronouncements that aren't properly thought through.
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.
I saw this explanation of the circular economy in the business section of our local rag last week and it made me grind my teeth.
It was trying to distinguish between a linear economy and a circular economy by adding the '3 Rs' to the linear economy. It's not the first time I've seen the circular economy drawn as a straight line – and it's a really stupid way of illustrating the difference for a number of reasons:
1. It still looks like the linear economy at first glance;
2. Figure 2 is actually the way our economy is at the minute – linear + 3Rs – so no-one would notice the difference between that diagram and the status quo;
3. Psychologically, it doesn't get across the most important difference between the two. In a circular economy, pre-used material is more desirable than virgin material.
If you draw the circular economy as a circle - see below - it changes the whole way we look at materials. In particular we see the loop as producing quality raw materials at a competitive price, not as a form of waste diversion (3Rs). Yes, you could add in other loops and some minor leakage/input, but the core circle is a very powerful metaphor in our minds and we need to emphasise it.
So let's draw the circular economy as a circle. The clue is in the name.
An anecdote from another consultant this week really resonated with me. He had a meeting with a C-level executive at a major client about an aspect of sustainability (you'll have guessed by now that I'm being deliberately vague to protect my colleague). The executive got rather hot under the collar because the consultant asked questions pertaining to the level of leadership on this issue. The meeting didn't end well.
This has happened to me many a time - at middle or senior management levels. When I used to do simple waste minimisation visits on behalf of the now defunct Envirowise, there was always the point where I was taken to the operations manager or production manager as the environmental manager, who had typically invited me in, couldn't answer the questions. So I would sit in the former's office, politely working through my questions while the temperature plummeted. Fierce glances would be fired at the environmental manager who would eventually cut the meeting short.
There's a big lesson for sustainability practitioners here - whether internal or external. People don't like to be challenged on their own patch. And the further up the reporting chain you go, the worse it gets.
This is exacerbated by the fact that many senior managers see paying lip service to sustainability as 'leadership'. It's not - leadership on sustainability almost always involves driving step changes in the way the organisation operates, not just finding the right words.
Unless you have built up a really trusting relationship with that individual, if you even imply that the putative 'leader' is not really leading, things can get very heated, very quickly.
My preferred approach is to help the leader work out for themselves what they need to be doing. Easier said than done, but it does work - and without any bruised egos.