This month's Ask Gareth answers a great question from Dan – how do you keep Sustainability running after the honeymoon. My basic answer is that it is too late to consider it then and I suggest three ways you can design your Sustainability programme to be self sustaining.
Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.
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.
On Saturday I was at a workshop looking at improving the experience of pedestrians and cyclists in inner-city neighbourhoods in our city. One of the guest speakers brilliantly summed up why that horrible 1980s/90s street design style which corralled pedestrians into convoluted, fenced routes to guide them away from busy roads didn't work:
"We're natural Pythagoreans. We'll never walk around a right angle if we can see a hypotenuse."
One of my principles of embedding Sustainability into organisations is to make the sustainable option the easiest route. That means removing barriers to that hypotenuse and making the unsustainable option(s) the 'right angled' route(s).
This can be physical (like putting cycle parking by the front door) or it can be bureaucratic (making it more difficult to book flights than trains), but I have seen time and time again that it works.
My big theme this year is 'Sustainability conversations', and one thing that sets 'conversation' apart from 'communication' is you've got to listen as well as talk.
If you actively listen to those you are trying to communicate with, you will find the following benefits:
1. Your audience will trust what you are trying to say if you show that you care about what they think;
2. You will be able to respond to your audience's hopes, fears and uncertainties and the audience will get a deeper understanding as a result;
3. If the audience feels it is 'in the loop', individuals are more likely to embrace new ways of working;
4. You will learn how to adjust your language, tone and imagery to appeal to your wider audience (I don't guess what the culture is like when I'm using Green Jujitsu, I tend to ask them);
5. You will discover the barriers your audience see to more sustainable behaviour and be able to remove them.
The last one is not to be underestimated – some of my biggest 'wins' with clients have come from listening to what frontline employees say. Fixing such problems is often at low or no cost and tilts the playing field permanently towards more sustainable behaviour for all.
As the old saying goes, you've got two ears and one mouth and you should use them proportionately!
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.
If 2016 was a tumultuous one in world affairs – Brexit, Trump, Syria, all your childhood icons dying – it was a relatively calm one here at Terra Infirma Towers. It was a year of solid delivery rather than breakthrough and, possibly related, for me personally, spending a lot of time in physio to try (semi-successfully) to get the little finger I dislocated at the start of January working again. Many of my blog posts in 2016 were written in the coffee shop of the Royal Victoria Infirmary here in Newcastle (a client of ours, so I wrote it off as background research!).
From a work point of view, we delivered on several major projects started in 2015. Two of these, a research project on employee engagement for a major sustainability leader, and a sustainability strategy for NHSBT, will become publicly available next year. I intend to delve quite deeply into those for your benefit when they are launched as some of the content and lessons are really cool, if I may say so myself. A notable new client was Durham University, who we helped to embed sustainability into its mainstream engineering degree syllabus – a real passion of mine.
The Northern England Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) continued delivering top value for its members. What I really like is when I see conclusions from CoSM shaping the sustainability programmes of members in practice. The Group will motor on in 2017 and we're looking to put together a Southern branch.
I put a lot of work updating our Green Academy webinar programme this year and we had some great new companies signing up. If you want to try it out for free, our 2017 taster session is on 18 January.
So that just leaves me to thank all our clients, partners, associates, friends and family for their support in 2016 – and looking forward to 2017 and whatever it may hold!
I found out last week that one of my clients dissuades people from using air travel by requiring the prior approval of the Chief Operating Officer. This creates a pinch point – booking a train is much less hassle.
At another client, staff have to pay for short haul flights upfront themselves and claim the money back, whereas train tickets get purchased directly by the company. This means they could be out of pocket for six weeks.
At a third, we had to remove the bureaucracy around booking the teleconferencing system when we found it was putting people off using it – booking travel was easier. Once the red tape had gone, the teleconferencing went from gathering dust to booked out almost overnight.
The whole 'nudge' theory – make desirable behaviour easier than undesirable behaviour – has gone out of fashion recently, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work. The examples above show how powerful it can be.
I see a massive overlap with my Green Jujitsu approach to employee engagement for Sustainability as both treat people as they are, rather than what you would like them to be.
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.
Quite a bit of my work recently has been around taking a Sustainability Strategy and embedding it into the organisation. While gaining buy-in from employees is a big part of how I approach this (my preferred option is to get the buy-in of key people by involving them in developing the strategy, but that's another story), if we are to truly make sustainability the new business as usual then it has to be, almost by definition, the default option whenever decisions arise.
This is not a trivial challenge. Many of my clients have been in existence for 50+ years (some over 100) and they have slowly accumulated ways of doing things based on the largely linear, fossil fuel based economy which arose from the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly we are trying to change all that in just a few years.
On the positive side, fast change is very possible - sometimes destructively so, as when Kodak was decimated by the very digital photography it had invented but sidelined. There is also my favourite mantra, the 80:20 Rule, which holds that a very small number of changes will deliver the vast majority of results. If you are smart, you can identify those key changes and put your efforts into making them happen, rather than sapping your time and effort on trying to get thousands of people to switch off their phone chargers overnight.
While many 'sustainability by default' initiatives involve 'nudging' people by, say, setting printers to print duplex by default, there are some much bigger gains to be won by, for example, tweaking investment appraisals to account for full carbon costs or putting energy reduction targets into the personal objectives of every site manager. It is this kind of hardwiring of sustainability into core systems that will deliver year after year with little or no further intervention.
This morning I was running my normal route up the river valley where I live. Towards the far end of my circuit, I came up behind three dog walkers, hoods up against the drizzle, deep in conversation and taking up the whole path. First I coughed, but got no response. Then I called "Excuse me!", but not a flicker. By now I was right behind them so I said "Excuse me, please!" at normal volume. The three of them jumped out of their skins, backed away from me as if I was a bear, hands instinctively covering their throats. I apologised profusely and ran on. As I looped back down the valley, I saw them back in their own little world.
As I ran back home, I mused on how we all live in our own little worlds, oblivious to most of what is going on around us. We have to, as there is just too much information in the world to process, so we have to filter the vast majority of it out, leaving what is immediately important to us. I bet if one of the dogs had gone off their owners' radar they would have picked up on it much more quickly than a podgy flat footed jogger huffing and puffing up behind them.
I often hear sustainability practitioners list all the ways they have tried to get colleagues engaged in climate and/or other sustainability issues. They express frustration that nothing on the list has worked, but I'm not surprised as it is all formulated from a 'green' point of view and gets filtered out by those who don't already get 'green'.
The key is, of course, to find a green message that does get through the filters – not by frightening the life out of people as I did with my dog walkers, but by finding the overlap between their interests and sustainability. That means putting to one side everything you hold dear and putting yourself in your audience's shoes, or as I call it, Green Jujitsu.
Real decisions, I mean, where you actively choose between two options rather than follow your usual practice. When you got in the shower this morning, did you choose a shampoo or grab the only there one, your usual one or the nearest one? When you fired up your computer at work, did the option of not doing that cross your mind? How often have you bought a different newspaper to usual, just to get a different perspective on life?
I realised this morning in a coffee shop that, by choosing a cappuccino for a change rather than my default black americano, I was making different choice that I take maybe 1 in 20 times. Last week I read the Daily Mail cover to cover for the first time in years (which was a shock to the system in more ways than one). A few years ago I signed up to a 'green household awareness' scheme but failed to weigh my rubbish for more than a couple of days at a time before defaulting to chucking it straight in the appropriate bin. Me – Mr Sustainability himself – couldn't even cope with this minor deviation from the norm. Embarrassing.
We are creatures of habit.
And, as Sustainability practitioners, we have to embrace that, rather than fight it. We've got to appreciate new habits take a long time to form and, more importantly, working with people's normal routines rather than against them is the quickest way to get Sustainability embedded into the organisation.
The end of last month saw the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meet at the sumptuous Acklam Hall in Middlesbrough to discuss supply chain issues. Here's a baker's dozen of the many nuggets which emerged from the meeting for your delectation:
Many organisations have no idea about what’s in their supply chain which is an enormous risk as problems bubble upwards;
Poor supplier performance on Sustainability is often indicative of wider incompetence;
Need to keep an open mind regarding risks, eg slavery occurs in the UK as well as developing countries.
Write contract conditions to pass sustainability risks to the suppliers who represent those risks eg traceability;
Innovation should always be put into contract extension commitments to drive continual improvement;
Can be a tension between need to collaborate and get tough on suppliers – need to present carrots and sticks;
Get suppliers to solve your problems, rather than you trying to solve theirs;
Run award schemes for ‘supplier with best sustainability performance’ eg Johnson & Johnson;
Internally, need to align responsibility with authority so the actual decision maker is held accountable for the Sustainability implications of their decisions;
Consider using emotive words such as ‘Risks’ rather than ‘Sustainability’ on meeting agendas;
External speakers can sometimes bring gravitas that internal practitioners can’t;
Recruit people who have ‘been there, done that’;
Make suppliers compete on sustainability by having ‘open’ scoring system in addition to proscribed/box-ticking requirements.
The Mastermind Group meets quarterly in the North of England to discuss Sustainability issues under the Chatham House Rule. We are currently working on kicking off a South East branch with the first meeting pencilled in for 10 November. Contact me (email@example.com) for more details on either Group.
This week I read an article on employee engagement for Sustainability on a well-known eco-business website (I won't bother linking to protect the guilty), wondering if it had a new angle, a nice case study or a clever technique I hadn't come across before. Unfortunately the piece could have been written 10, 20 or even 30 years ago – we had 'switch it off' stickers and posters on the walls when I started in the Civil Service in 1993.
Here's a thing – if it hasn't worked in the last 23 years, why would it start working now?
This approach is so old hat, I parodied it in an animation 3 and a half years ago. We have so much more sophisticated approaches including gamification, 'nudge' techniques and my own Green Jujitsu (translating Sustainability for the worldview of each audience) that you would have thought that a half-competent environmental consultancy may have come across (hint: try Google). But apparently not.
To deliver Sustainability, we need new thinking across the board. Whether that is managing distributed energy, developing new business models or effective employee engagement; blindly trying the same old technique whether or not it works is the epitome of stupidity. One of the joys of working in Sustainability is learning something new every day – revel in it!
At last week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group, I (re)used my 'monster truck' template (above). The analogy is that we are in the truck, transversing the boulders which are in the way of 'the new normal' - ie meeting our sustainability goals.
As we were packing up, one member, a chemist by background, referred to the pile of boulders as the 'activation energy' for sustainability. I can remember enough of my A-level Chemistry to remember that this is the energy required to get two reagents to react, even if the results are more stable than the ingredients you started with. So to light a wood fire, you need to light a match and set it to paper and kindling to give the main fuel enough energy to burn itself. In a way the wood is sat there waiting to be burnt, but if you just throw a match at it, nothing happens.
I thought that activation energy was a great analogy. One of the big frustrations of Sustainability practitioners is that a sustainable world is clearly more desirable than an unsustainable one. Who really wants pollution, an unstable climate or the destruction of natural habitats? So why do we allow those things to happen? Or why do our efforts to change things often flounder? The answer is the activation energy required to get from here to there.
What do chemists do if activation energy is too high? They find a catalyst to reduce it. Sustainability catalysts include policy changes, technological breakthroughs and facilitators – the last of which is where we come in.
Here are several ways that you, as a sustainability catalyst, can reduce that activation energy:
Focus people on defining 'the new normal' rather than obsessing about 'business as usual' (this is how we start with the template above;
Expand this into a backcasting approach to define intermediate steps;
Frame sustainability to match the culture of the audience (aka Green Jujitsu eg talk engineering for engineers, health for the health sector, cash for accountants etc);
Involve people in solutions generation to get enthusiasm and buy-in for change;
Get visible leadership buy-in;
Get people (employees, suppliers etc) to compete to be the most sustainable;
Remain upbeat, encouraging and cunning.
But don't just chuck matches at the fuel and complain when it doesn't light.
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.
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.
The story has been told many times, but it's a good one if you're a Brit. Thoroughly embarrassed by GB's pathetic single-gold-medal showing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1994, Prime Minister John Major diverted National Lottery funding into British Sport. As the curtain drops on the (main) Rio Olympics 20 years later, we've just pushed China into third place on the medal table for the first time since the latter started competing.
Elements of the press are starting to react uncomfortably to this success, even likening it to the chest-thumpingly patriotic Eastern Bloc displays of the Cold War era. They fret particularly about GB's decidedly Darwinian funding formula – win medals and you get a shedload more dosh to win more (which buys the best facilities, coaches and kit), lose out and you get nada. Sorry, basketball, but we spent your cash on new cycling skin suits.
My immediate reaction to this soul searching is: do you want to win or not?
If not, that's OK, taking part is fine. But don't complain if we can't deliver top level sporting results with non-competitive thinking, because it's one or the other. Personally, I'm quite enjoying the winning.
I see a strong parallel with Corporate Sustainability. All too often people who claim their organisation takes Sustainability seriously tell me that they would never ditch a supplier on Sustainability grounds, never consider axing an unsustainable product, never invest in developing new sustainable technologies. They are uncomfortable at targeting key decision makers for engagement ("we believe it's everybody's responsibility"), putting sustainability targets into those individual's personal objectives (ditto) or moving them along if they're incompatible with the strategy (ditto).
In the wider environmental movement, we often see green activists campaigning against green solutions - witness George Monbiot's writings against the very solar feed in tariffs which are delivering a renewables revolution. I agree with Monbiot that FiTs aren't perfectly fair (they divert cash from all bill payers into the pockets of those who can afford to invest in solar), but doing nothing is much, much worse. Anti-capitalists such as Naomi Klein claim, conveniently, that we will only tackle climate change by replacing capitalism with an vague and untried alternative which may not actually exist.
So, we can get our hands dirty delivering on Sustainability now, messy compromises and all, or we can wait indefinitely for a perfect solution, because it's one or the other. I know which one I'm doing.
PBC: Here's the evidence (holds up graph demolishing ACS's arguments).
ACS: That data's been manipulated.
PBC: By who?
[Audience bursts out laughing, PBC doesn't know where to look]
Secondly, I've seen a number of letters in newspapers and comments on blogs where the author clearly believes the UK is lagging the world, if not moving backwards, on renewable energy. The reality is, as the FT points out, the UK is ranked No 2 for renewable energy amongst G20 nations having gone from 6% of electrical power from renewables to 24% in the last five years.
It is simply impossible to argue that this surge is not impressive without contorting reality beyond breaking point. But these guys manage it with remarkable ease.
Both ACS and the green doomsters are suffering from extreme cases of confirmation bias – our tendency to grasp any tiny sliver of evidence to back up our gut instincts, while ignoring everything which contradicts that feeling, no matter how strong that counter-argument is. We all do it, shouty people just do it much more than the rest of us.
The moral of the story? Evidence is not enough. We need to engage with people's gut instinct as that's where change happens or doesn't.
Before the horrors of the last few days, it must have been a slow news period as the Telegraph rolled out another of their 'lycra lout' articles about the village of Great Budworth which claims to be under siege from the two-wheeled menaces. I think one anecdote summarises the story:
"One nearly crashed into my brother's car as he was pulling out of the drive and shouted at him."
Or, translated into objective language:
"My brother pulled out on to a road without looking properly, nearly knocked someone off his bike, endangering his life, and was surprised that the guy was angry about it."
What surprises me is that neither the story-teller, the brother, the journalist or the editor realised the stupidity of this line. I'm sure they're all intelligent people, but they regurgitate this nonsense because it backs up the way they have already made up their mind. This is known as confirmation bias.
As a Sustainability practitioner you will have come across this phenomenon time and time again. The presumption that Sustainability must cost more, despite all the facts and figures you provide. The presumption that renewable energy will never be cost effective despite plunging prices. The presumption that Sustainability is not a core business issue despite the fact that those who do Sustainability better have been shown to make more profit. The 'zombie arguments' from climate change deniers refuse to die for this very reason.
Like those in the Telegraph article, there is no point in trying to confront those 'misconceptions' head on (just have a look at all the Godwin's-Law-breaking arguments on Twitter for proof). My Green Jujitsu approach works on the heart as well as trying to appeal to the mind, by getting people involved in Sustainability using their core skills and interests. For example, it's said that the Netherlands doesn't suffer from this us-and-them battle between motorists and cyclists because almost all drivers cycle as well, so they identify with being on two wheels.
So if you are locked into a war of attrition over a Sustainability issue or project, stop, take a step back and think about how you can make it appealing to your opponents' hearts as well as minds.