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14 February 2012

Facilitating Sustainability Strategy Sessions

The biggest change in our consulting approach since Terra Infirma was founded in 2006 is the move away from a traditional 'clipboard consulting' - gather evidence, analyse data, formulate recommendations, write report - to a facilitation-based approach - gather stakeholders, agree goals, generate ideas, come to mutually agreed conclusions. The reasons for this shift are numerous:

  • You unlock the intellectual capital of the organisation;
  • You lessen the risk of proposing conclusions which are incompatible with company culture or other strategies;
  • You lessen the risk of missing important factors;
  • You get buy-in from the stakeholders - the results are much less likely to sit on the shelf if key people have been directly involved in generating them;
  • The kinaesthetic experience of arranging Post-Its, sticky dots etc brings out the creative in us all;
  • It's a lot of fun.

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6 June 2011

Do we need the Carbon & Energy Saving Trusts?

Compared to the furore over other UK Government cuts, the announcement that two key environmental quangos, the Carbon Trust and the Energy Saving Trust, are losing their core funding has been met with a rather muted response. For those who don't know the CT focussed on cutting emissions in industry and the EST domestic emissions. Except for industrial transport emissions which the EST covered. (Why? Answers on the back of a postcard...)

I used to have a contract with Envirowise - the waste/everything-except-energy equivalent of the CT/EST. All of these UK environmental quangos have a similar structure - a core service augmented by huge numbers of consultants who have to go through a rigourous selection procedure and then get called upon to deliver services - usually at no cost to the 'client'. For what it's worth here are my views on the limitations of this approach:

  • If you offer a service for free, human nature means it will not be valued by the beneficiaries. I suspect that the vast majority of the recommendations I gave business were not acted upon - not because they weren't great ideas, but because the 'client' had no stake in the process;
  • If the business case for energy efficiency/waste minimisation and water conservation is as strong as we all say it is, why should private industry get the services at the taxpayers' expense? And it reinforces the idea that 'the environment' is something society has to take responsibility for, rather than individual companies;
  • The quangos recruit a huge number of talented people, beat them down on price and then tell them exactly how to deliver the services. This delivery is so oriented towards delivering the targets that Government have set the quango, that any creativity or blurring boundaries is frowned upon;
  • The offer of 'free' services means that practitioners often have little choice to take part. So rather than having a competitive market in environmental/sustainability services you end up with a narrowly focussed nationalised service, undermining innovation and excellence.

You've probably guessed that I won't miss these quangos if they fail to survive without huge Government grants. That's not to say that the services were delivered badly - all these quangos produced some great literature and guides - it's the overall concept I'm believe is fatally flawed. And I guess that many in the industry will agree with me.





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13 September 2010

Clipboards vs Flipcharts

Tomorrow I'm running a waste workshop for a small manufacturing company (you wouldn't know their name, but you'd know some of the brands they manufacture). The whole structure of the workshop is designed to embed the underlying principles into the thinking of the participants. In fact the reason for having a workshop rather than doing a "clipboard consulting" walkover review is to develop sustainable solutions owned by the company employees, not by me.

There is no Powerpoint (hurrah!) because I want them to come up with the answers rather than me preaching to them. So the technology comes down to the humble flipchart and pen. I will elicit the drivers for going green for them, because I want them to think about them rather than having to sell those drivers to them. We will be developing a model of their company and identifying where opportunities to make improvements lie.

This approach has three benefits:

  • We get to harness their brainpower, experience and knowledge to identify problems and solutions rather than just my expertise;
  • They own the solutions, making it far more likely they will be implemented effectively;
  • The enthusiasm generated by this approach can lead to further spontaneous solutions appearing in the future.

For these reasons, I'm increasingly finding that my consultancy, staff engagement and training projects are converging in an amorphous single beast. Training makes more sense if learning is applied to the organisation concerned and consultancy is much more likely to 'stick' if there is a capacity building/engagement element.

Whether or not you engage an outside provider to help you green your organisation, I thoroughly recommend going down the workshop approach. So put away those clipboards and get out those flipcharts!

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9 November 2009

Free waste consultancy for North East SMEs

If you're a small to medium sized business (<250 employees, not more than 25% owned by a bigger company) based in the North East of England and you'd like a couple of days free waste consultancy, then drop me a line in the next couple of weeks. There's a couple of forms to fill in, but that's all.

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10 December 2008

Five stupid questions I get asked about environmental consultancy

1. Why would a hard pressed business be bothered with the environment?

I reviewed 26 environmental health checks I carried out over the last two years for companies whose activities range from catering to pharmaceuticals. The average financial saving identified from waste minimisation, water conservation and energy efficiency measures was £175 000 per annum. Next question.

2. Would your clients reduce waste if it didn't save them money?

Frankly, I don't care. My job is to improve my clients' business performance by addressing their waste, energy, raw material and water issues either for direct economic/legislative benefit or to improve their environmental reputation. I don't expect them to start hugging trees or wearing sandals.

3. Are you not rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

My priority as a consultant is to meet my clients' needs rather than save the planet, but from an environmental point of view, in my career I have diverted at least a half million tonnes of waste from landfill into further economic use. Energy/carbon-saving benefits have been delivered on a similar scale. And there are thousands of other environmental consultants out there…

4. Is this not just a fad?

No. Environmental legislation has been tightening since the Clean Air Acts of the 1950s. They said it was a fad in the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and this decade too. It ain't going away.

5. Should you really be profiting from the environment?

Why not? I'd rather make profit from preventing damage to the environment than causing it.

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13 November 2008

Beware the old 'Bait & Switch'

I'm on the train back North having attended the Skillfair Consultants Conference in London - I go every year to learn from other boutique and solo consultants with a wide range of skills and services. One of the great grumbles at these sessions is the perception of the 'big name consultancies' as low risk compared to smaller operators, when the smaller operator will be cheaper, and, more importantly, you will always get the principal consultant working on your project.

The old trick of buttering up a client with senior staff until signing the contract and then appointing naive beginners to deliver the project is known in the trade as 'bait and switch'. I recently heard a first hand account (from the frustrated client) of a case where the client wanted to compare the carbon footprints of their numerous but similar sites. The well known firm they employed dropped a different team of juniors into each site (thus maximising fees in a short timeframe) and, lo, each team measured the footprint of their designated site in a different way rendering the comparison useless. Would a one-man-band have done the same? Very unlikely - it would be very inefficient to invent multiple methods - and they wouldn't stay in business for long if they were so incompetent to do so.

The moral of the story is that big isn't always better. Choose carefully...

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29 October 2008

A Game of Two Halves for Environmental Consultants

The ENDS Report has found that the Environmental Consultancy business is realigning itself to match the changing economic situation. Contaminated Land, traditionally the largest market in the sector, has tanked due to the slow down in the construction industry, but the cost cutting sector (energy, waste etc) is booming as industry tries to cut costs and the public sector continues with the sustainability agenda.

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1 October 2008

FreeIndex Business Advice Centre launch their Business Advice Centre today - you can ask any question on running a business and get advice from a panel of experts.

Along with fellow environmental consultant Anthony Day, I've been appointed as the expert for green office queries.

Other topics include marketing, sales, web advice etc etc - there's a wealth of expertise waiting to answer your burning questions, so why not check it out?

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15 February 2008

How not to employ an Environmental Consultant...

I recently requested tender documents from a large organisation who wanted a carbon footprint. They had a huge raft of different properties, a big fleet of vehicles and a complex supply chain. When I read the tender I was aghast. They wanted:

- a "comprehensive report" on their carbon footprint.

- 3 ways they could reduce this by a stipulated amount.

- all this within 4 weeks (the same time they had given themselves to evaluate the tenders).

- the consultant to quote a daily rate.

I wrote back and told them this was unrealistic. I didn't explain why in detail, but here are the reasons:

- Daily rate: if you pay by the hour/day then frankly you are paying for the consultant to type slowly or hang around your premises chatting. It's the only way consultants can make any money out of selling their expertise by the hour, other than lying to you about the hours they've put in. The tight timeframe just encourages a larger team of consultants to work even more inefficiently - team meetings rack up those hours.

- Prescriptive methodology: if the person writing the tender has expertise in environmental consultancy, why don't they do it themselves? If not, and they need an expert, why not let that expert suggest their own methodology?

- 3 ways: what happens if it is 2 or 4 or 6?

- Comprehensive report: they must have some space on the dust collecting shelf to fill. Of course, given the daily rate, you'll make the slow typing consultant happy!

- 4 weeks: how does the client know how long a good piece of work will take? Will the client really be able to provide all the information in this timescale? Will all key staff be made available? Would a better study in 8 weeks not be, well, better? Given the complexity of the problem, it will take a reasonable amount of chronological time (as opposed to billable hours) to build an organisational model, collect data, interpret it, interview staff and develop solutions.

How about this as an alternative:

- Fixed fee: the incentive is for the consultant to work efficiently, not rack up billable hours.

- Flexible methodology: I like to engage the client's staff in solution development as a. they know much more about the business than I will learn in a few weeks, and, b. the recommendations are much more likely to be implemented if the staff have ownership. There was no scope for this in the Tender above as the client probably hasn't thought of it. I'm not expecting them to have either - I'm the one who's meant to know what I'm doing!

- Appropriate deliverables, discussed and agreed between consultant and client.

- Unless there is a very good reason for the tight timeframe, why not let the consultant suggest how much time they will need to deliver the project (the engagement strategy I mentioned above will take more time to organise).

This is not a rant against that one organisation - virtually every tender I look at has a similar approach. Which is one reason I've ditched tendering for work except in a few special circumstances. If I were buying consultancy I would ask consultants to send in a project proposal to address the highest level requirements (we want to cut our carbon footprint by X%) the way they think is best, shortlist and interview before appointing.

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