If I had to choose the best method for communicating sustainability, my automatic first choice would be involvement (workshops, problem solving etc). But if you are need an effective broadcast method, then storytelling is the next best thing. We relate to stories in a way we can't relate to raw facts or data.
I must admit my evidence for this came mainly from my own experiences and received wisdom, but now scientists have weighed in with proof. Some recent neuroscience research by Uri Hanson at Princeton shows that when you tell a story, brain activity of audience members starts to reflect that of the storyteller:
By simply telling a story, the [storyteller] could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners' brains.
[Hasson] found that the more the listeners understood the story, the more their brain activity dovetailed with the speaker's. When you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story.
So the next time you are giving a talk on sustainability or writing the 'green pages' on your company newsletter, make sure that you tell stories - lots of them. It's what your audience will latch onto. And that's scientific fact.
I'm busy writing up the results of a client workshop and something that has struck me is how the following two phrases are used interchangeably:
"Changing culture to embrace sustainability"
"Embedding sustainability into the culture of the business"
I must admit I sometimes mix the two up, but, if you think about it, they are quite different mindsets and it is very important to distinguish between them.
"Changing culture" carries the impression of imposing a worldview on employees - at worst trying to brainwash them. This is extremely difficult to do, morally dubious and most people trying it simply flounder.
"Embedding sustainability into the culture" implies working with the culture that is already there to find common ground between people's attitudes and sustainability - in other words what I call Green Jujitsu. This isn't easy either, but it is a much more effective approach than trying to change culture wholesale.
Language matters - so we must choose our words carefully.
I was having another rant about the pointlessness of green awareness weeks/days/hours recently when Hiram Wurf pointed me towards the satirical song "National Brotherhood Week" by Tom Lehrer recorded in 1965. Hits the nail right on the head. Enjoy!
The first green neologism I have come across in 2014 is 'green hush'. If greenwash is exaggerating environmental performance then green hush is playing it down. The consensus of opinion seems to be that it is A BAD THING.
Is it, really?
For a start, many organisations that have a good sustainability record and did publicise it have come under attack from the green movement for not being perfect. Who decides how green green is?
Secondly, what was seen as green a decade ago - ISO14001, office paper recycling, energy efficient lighting, building management systems, IT virtualisation, digitisation - are now seen as the new normal. This is obviously a good thing, but it creates the risk that you could find yourself being accused of greenwash for not keeping your marketing material right up to date.
And lastly, at the end of the day what matters is a smaller footprint, not the distracting debate that swirls around it.
That said, there is an argument that good communication of environmental performance helps raise the bar across business - and there are PR benefits for individual companies if the greenwash bear traps can be avoided. What is important is HOW the message is communicated - making it compelling, robust and in context. And that's quite a challenge.
On Tuesday we had the sixth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) - the small group of senior sustainability executives from large organisations which I facilitate on a quarterly basis.
We returned to a venue for the first time, the fantastic Undercroft at the Live Theatre, Newcastle. Most of this room is mediaeval, but those timbers in the background were recycled from Elizabethan ships, and it has functioned as everything from a prison to a wine cellar and, most recently, for exploring sustainability strategy in detail!
The Mastermind Group operates under the Chatham House Rule, so I can't reveal who said what, or give the specific examples we were discussing, but here is a selection of the generic conclusions we reached:
Business meets societal needs. No value => no profit and no profit => no value;
Defining societal need in large companies can be difficult as they are often multi-faceted;
Fundamental question: does growth => more harm? Depends on business model;
Ethical dilemma – whose ethics are ethical? The definition may be out of your hands;
Another ethical dilemma – where does responsibility end? Again, the definition may be out of your hands;
Fundamentally need to do what’s right for your business;
One effective tactic is to drive sustainability goals by piggybacking on other business goals;
Need to decide on granularity of the strategy eg simple energy efficiency measures vs reconfiguring whole business;
Sometimes you arrive at sustainability objectives from a different direction, but this is not a problem;
Asset intensive industries typically use 5 year rolling planning cycle – too short for sustainability planning;
Ten year stretch targets for sustainability are compatible with such a cycle;
An alternative is to use iconic dates eg corporate centenaries – something for the organisation to rally around;
People can obsess about the little stuff ,eg disposable coffee cups, and ignore the big picture;
Emotions beat arguments, so show don’t tell – “facts” are never enough;
‘Behind the label’ – provide the detail for those who want to dive into it;
Need to complete the whole product sustainability jigsaw;
A full product life cycle assessment can be a real eye opener, however care must be taken with life cycle assumptions (eg use patterns, life span);
Product stories are an increasingly effective way to market green performance;
Independent substantiation of all claims is vital.
As always, the real benefit of the session lies in how we got to these generic points - and the examples of company specific challenges and shortcuts members threw in to the discussion.
The CoSM Group is for senior sustainability managers in large organisations. It meets quarterly in great locations for open and frank discussion - and NO Powerpoint. If you'd like to learn more, please drop me a line.
If I told you about a country where, last quarter, more than a third of all electricity was generated from low carbon sources, which one do you think I'd be talking about?
Well I'm sat in it, and so are many of you: dear old Blighty.
Household recycling rates are nudging the 45-50% mark, depending on where you are in the country.
All this from what was 'the dirty man of Europe'? The one where renewable sources barely registered on energy statistics just a couple of years ago? The one with the throw-away culture?
As Fat Boy Slim would say, we've come a long way, baby.
What's interesting is that nobody has really noticed. Green is becoming the new normal. So much so that some organic food/drink producers now don't label their product as such in case consumers assume it's a niche product at a premium price. They just want it to be seen as a great product in a normal way.
And that's a good thing.
Some green ideologues may cry foul, saying that that this isn't deep green enough, but asking people to live in tie-dyed yurts, meditating on ley lines and knitting yoghurt, will get you nowhere.
Normal, everyday, mundane even - that's the ultimate green goal.
We've all been there - sat in the audience while a sharp suited executive stands in front of glossy corporate Powerpoint slides and tells us how wonderful their sustainability programme is. When it comes to the Q&A, any query with a hint of controversy is skilfully deflected with a well worn platitude. And all the time you're sat there thinking "I bet that's not the real story." And you're right, 9 times out of 10 the gloss covers some really deep cracks and doesn't extend into the darkest corners.
But how likely is it that that our speaker would stand up and list all the mishaps, outright failures and the stuff they haven't done yet as it's too difficult? For some brands such honesty would hit the headlines - and could pitch said executive onto the dole queue (it's been known to happen.)
So how do you open up honest conversations and meaningful dialogue while still allowing people to share what they have learned?
When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.
This is incredibly simple, and it relies on trust, but it is very effective. We can share the WHAT but not the WHO, reducing the risk of recrimination and allowing us to share gems such as:
"We don't have a hope in hell of hitting that target, but if I dilute it, we won't even come close, so we're sticking with it to keep the pressure on."
Far more insightful than the typical public equivalent:
"We've hit 80% of our targets already and we're well on our way to hit the rest."
Typically the Chatham House Rule works better in smaller forums and those with a reasonably fixed membership so peer pressure does the enforcement.
The second rule of the Mastermind Group is "NO POWERPOINT" - if you want to have a meaningful discussion, then a 40 slide deck is not the way to go about it. Instead we have a facilitated discussion using one of my signature A0 templates and Post-Its. I've written about the power of workshops before, so I won't go into details here.
And, if you are wondering, the third and last rule is "No dreary executive buffets" - we eat properly!
On Tuesday we had the fifth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) - the small group of senior sustainability executives from large organisations which I facilitate on a quarterly basis. We met in what was probably our best location yet, the Undercroft at the Live Theatre Newcastle. Most of the room is mediaeval, but those timbers in the background were recycled from Elizabethan ships. It has been used for storing flammable materials, French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars and those press-ganged into the Navy - certainly the huge thick metal doors gave the place a slight penitentiary feel.
I was press-ganging the members into discussing next generation sustainability strategies - a massive topic which we are going to continue next time. The Group operates under the Chatham House Rule, so I can't reveal who said what, but here are some highlights:
Most organisations need to shift from an organisation focussed strategy to a product focussed strategy;
That shift means engaging with the market and addressing supply chains are essential steps;
A sustainability strategy must be built around the business drivers for that organisation – so a meaningful understanding of drivers is a prerequisite;
Stretch targets raise sights and broaden thinking – however they must remain credible;
Won’t achieve the endpoint without breaking the journey down into intermediate steps;
Is the Brundtland definition of sustainability ambitious enough? Should we not want to improve the world for future generations?
But in such net positive thinking, how do you make sure you don’t cheat and claim others' efforts for yourself?
At what point do sustainability and business strategies converge into one? They will inevitably do so;
Communicate the strategy using big clear statements, underpinned by clarifying statements, data and caveats;
What you stop doing is as important, if not more so, as what you start doing.
As always, the real benefit was how we got to these generic points - and the examples of company specific challenges and shortcuts members threw in to the discussion.
The CoSM Group is for senior sustainability managers in large organisations which meets quarterly in great locations for open and frank discussion - and NO Powerpoint. If you'd like to learn more, please drop me a line.
The great paradox of sustainability is that it is extremely complicated and yet, to make progress, we need to make it appear simple to wider audiences. Regular readers will know I have been mulling recently on the need to 'simplicate' sustainability - make it accessible without losing so much substance as to render it meaningless.
This topic came up at yesterday's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group and during our discussion I alighted on the not terribly original analogy of an iceberg - that the visible tip is just a fraction of its mass. If we make the visible tip a simple compelling message along the lines of Marks & Spencer's "Plan A, because there is no Plan B", then we need to deftly back this up with all the evidence, caveats and nuances without detracting from that simple message.
So the sustainability section (or preferably the home page) of the corporate website, say, would have the 3-5 main pledges/targets and links would take the curious and/or sceptical deep into the evidence and thinking. While the former can be easily rattled off by everybody from the CEO to the cleaner, the detail will satisfy the curious and/or sceptical and, if done honestly, see off the risk of accusations of greenwash.
Last week, I was revelling in the concept of simplication of sustainability - making the complex appear simple and accessible without losing anything critical. The antonym of simplicate is complify - to make things more complicated sounding than they really are. Well, this week I landed by chance on the phrase "endosymbiotic thrivability".
I like what the coiners of that phrase are trying to get at - 'endosymbiotic' refers to a rather particular biological phenomenon of one organism developing inside another - used as an analogy for society evolving within the natural world to the benefit of both - and 'thrivability' is about looking beyond mere sustainability into a future where we do more than merely exist. Those are both worthy ideas that I already stand for.
And it's a big BUT.
I've worked in sustainability for over 15 years and I had to google 'endosymbiotic'. In fact, I first read it as 'endoscopy' which is something else entirely... What chance, then, does the person in the street trying to make ends meet, or the executive in a high pressure boardroom, or the politician trying to get re-elected have of getting their head around this concept quickly? Those are our target audiences!
And while I agree with presenting the future as thriving rather than some kind of hair-shirt, back-to-the-yurt movement, we're just about getting some traction on the word 'sustainability' (which is a real word) without ripping it up and trying to sell a brand new one. Perfection is all too often often the enemy of success.
Setting aside the irony of using neologisms to knock neologisms, but we really do need to concentrate on simplicating rather than complifying sustainability - make it accessible, intuitive and attractive to people outside the sustainability field. Because, after all, it is those people in their multitudes who will deliver sustainability in practice, not the inner priesthood of practitioners.
What I like about it, apart from the animation has another fan, is the portmanteau word "Simplicated" - defined in the Urban Dictionary as
"Something that is simple and complicated at the same time."
and as a verb as
"To make something simpler through a process that initially seems daunting or complicated."
It struck me that this sums up sustainability - it is both simple and complicated at the same time. Our challenge as sustainability champions is to make the whole concept simple and accessible without undermining the scale and scope of the challenge.
If I have achieved that with The Art of Green Jujitsu, I am very proud indeed - and it sets the bar for the rest of my work!
It's almost a year since my Green Jujitsu book was published by DoSustainability. As regular readers will know, Green Jujitsu is the concept of aligning 'green' to your company culture, working to its strengths rather than trying to correct 'weaknesses'. So in an engineering company, you ditch the poor-polar-bear guilt trip and present sustainability as an engineering problem - and challenge employees to develop solutions because that's what they know and love.
Since publication, I've been using Green Jujitsu at many of the UK's biggest organisations both in the public and the private sector. Every time I do an engagement, I refine the techniques a little more and one that has emerged is segmentation.
For some organisations, you can assume that culture is fairly homogenous, but in others there are quite distinct job roles which will employ quite different people. For example, when working with one of the country's leading scientific organisations, we realised that there was a gulf in culture between scientific staff and support staff such as security and cleaners. The scientists wanted evidence for any statement to the extent that some divisions would provide them with, say, raw energy consumption data and let them do their own statistical analysis on it! It was the only way to keep them happy.
Like most of the rest of us, the typical security guard wouldn't have the time, resources or, frankly, inclination to go to these lengths. The security sector tends to be much more rule-based in culture, so the guards will want clear guidance on, say, what equipment and lights can and should be switched off overnight and what needs to be left on.
Clearly what is a turn on for one job role is a turn off for the other. The answer, then, is segmentation. In the same way that marketeers and political psephologists divide society into different segments, a diverse organisation should brainstorm the different audiences and apply Green Jujitsu to each one. So the eggheads get their data and the guards get the 'switch off' guidance embedded into their procedures.
One word of warning: while tailoring the message to each segment is essential, it is important not to stereotype employees in a crude or restrictive way. The insights and suggestions from those on the front line such as security guards are just as useful, if not more so, than those from academic backgrounds, so make sure you engage properly with everyone.
My favourite kids' book is undoubtedly Green Eggs & Ham by the legendary Dr Seuss. I love reading it to my boys, putting on the amateur dramatics as the persistent Sam-I-Am character goes to increasingly bizarre lengths to pursue and persuade the other (unnamed) protagonist to try the rather unpalatable looking, but apparently tasty, eponymous dish.
Of course the main lesson the book is trying to teach kids is to try something before dismissing it, but as I read it last night to the middle-sized one, I couldn't help thinking Sam-I-Am is also a great metaphor for the way far too many sustainability advocates try and bully other people into 'green' behaviour. If you stuff green (eggs and ham) under someone's nose and say 'try this', they'll simply walk away (and maybe jump on a train - a train! a train! - or a boat - with a goat? Sorry, I get carried away...)
In the real world, we don't have the time or energy to wage a war of attrition to break every colleague's will the way Sam-I-Am eventually does. We've got to think of ways to make the green dish more inviting in the first place, so people will give it a try and find out how nutritious and tasty it really is.
The popular sustainability website 2degrees occasionally reposts blogs from here. One, on using Green Jujitsu to deal with climate sceptics, really rubbed an academic up the wrong way. He raised a good point - whether reframing arguments to help you 'win' is ethical - but he couched it language ranging from snidey barbs to vitriolic insults, so it was impossible to debate with him on a rational basis. After a couple of attempts, I refused to indulge him, he got seriously nasty, and 2degrees removed his contributions for breaching their guidelines.
But now in the peace of a blog post, I can consider his point calmly. Is Green Jujitsu unethical? Is reframing arguments to match the interests of your audience respectful or disrespectful? When does persuasion become manipulation?
My view is that sustainability is too important and difficult a subject to waste time handwringing or pussyfooting around - we need to be skilled in the arts of persuasion. On the other hand, I think the Machiavellian dictum "the end justifies the means" is dangerous on both an ethical and practical level as it opens the door for all sorts of unintended consequences and takes you onto a slippery ethical slope. Anakin Skywalker thought he was doing the right thing but ended up as Darth Vader, after all.
Seriously, though, Green Jujitsu is essentially about framing sustainability in a way that makes it appealing to the audience. Any topic can be seen through a number of mental 'frames' or viewpoints, each of which reduces the bandwidth of information to make the subject comprehensible to us. So we can look at sustainability through an ethical frame, an economic frame, a technological frame, a social frame, a scientific frame, a selfish frame, an altruistic frame, a business opportunity frame etc, etc. Sustainability remains sustainability, it's just the perspective that changes.
My accuser's position assumes that his worldview (science) is the correct one and he can teach people to adopt it by correcting their 'misconceptions' through dialogue. To him that approach is open and honest, to me it is arrogant - I'm right, you're wrong - and impractical - tell people they're wrong and the natural reflex is "no I'm bloody well not!"
I would argue it requires humility to set aside our own default frame for sustainability and consider somebody else's worldview instead. Green Jujitsu acknowledges that others' values are almost certainly different from our own but are just as valid. It's about finding common ground between their worldview and sustainability and using that as a starting point for engagement, getting off on the right foot.
You can win or lose an argument on the words you choose to use.
Take the recent furore over changes to UK housing benefits. The Government introduced what they called a "under-occupation charge" for those living in social housing with more than the minimum number of bedrooms they needed. The Opposition branded this "the bedroom tax" and the press adopted the term. The Prime Minister tried to fight back, talking about the status quo as a "spare room subsidy", but it was too late, "the bedroom tax" had stuck.
Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the policy, the case demonstrates how important language is. The original name was a dreadful piece of technocrat-speak, wide open to attack. The attack was effective as it used the much more emotive term "bedroom tax" which painted the policy as a 'bad' - tax - applied to a 'good' - a nice cosy bedroom. The response of a "spare room subsidy" was an attempt to apply the 'bad' (subsidy) to something much less cosy - a 'spare room', but it was too weak, too late.
This kind of verbal reframing is all part of the daily cut and thrust of politics, and, more often than not, whoever coins a resonant phrase first wins.
I was thinking of this at yesterday's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting on sustainable supply chains. We were discussing Industrial Symbiosis - one company's waste becoming another's raw material - when one group member said that when talking to colleagues he preferred to call it "Waste to Value".
Why? Do some green jujitsu and put yourself in your colleagues' shoes.
You are busy doing your job when someone comes up to you to talk Industrial Symbiosis. Your reaction is likely to be "Huh? Can't this wait?"
Or they could ask you about Waste to Value - "What, we can make money from our waste? Tell me more!"
To win sustainability arguments, we have to think more like politicians, kick out the technocrat-speak, and put a positive spin on our sustainability ideas and projects. As Frank Luntz, George W Bush's infamous spin doctor put it, it's not what you say, it's what people hear. We need to use words that work.
How many times have you sat through a sustainability presentation that consists of graph after graph, table of data after table of data. And then at the end the presenter says "OK, what are we going to do?" and you rouse yourself from your day dream and think "about what?"
I've long promoted storytelling as a way of making sustainability more enthralling than an avalanche of evidence. Most people who use storytelling use a simple little personal story, but the best use the classic narrative ark of the quest. Somebody like us is suddenly thrown into a challenge and they must change to meet it - just like Frodo in Lord of The Rings, the everyman who is suddenly tasked with saving the world. The best example is the late Ray Anderson of Interface who talked of the 'spear in his chest' which made him set off on 'Mission Zero'. I once saw him tell this story in person, calmly and politely with no histrionics, and it was riveting.
Of course I have been a bit naughty and set up a false choice in the title of this post, but it's a mistake many people make. Stories and narratives wrap us up into sustainability, but the hard facts must be there to underpin the story - substance to match the style.
And Work Zone Awareness Week, National Beanpole Week, Bowel Cancer Awareness Week, Parkinson's Awareness Week, Depression Awareness Week, World Voice Day, World Haemophilia Day etc, etc, etc.
Please, please, spare us from more me-too 'awareness raising'. It is just lazy copycat activity for activity's sake, preaching to the converted. It might make us feel good about ourselves (a rude person might say 'smug') but it clearly flies over the heads of the intended audience.
Because, let's face it, if these weeks, days and hours worked, I'd know what Work Zone Awareness was. But I don't. Do you?
One of the advantages of working with clients' employees is you get a glimpse of the view of companies' sustainability efforts through their eyes. A common complaint, which I heard again this week is:
We won [big award] - there was a big fuss with the Chief Executive and all the great and the good - and then it all went quiet and we thought the attitude was 'job done, feet up'.
But, as is usually the case, there was lots of hard work continuing on with no real let up. The problem is that once you've raised the public profile so high, it is very hard to maintain it at that level. Some of this is inevitable, however there are a couple of things you can do to prevent a post-success slump:
Make it clear in all your communications that the success is merely one milestone along the road to sustainability and that you have more ambitious targets.
Give this narrative to the great and the good so they're saying it as well.
Secure commitment from the great and the good to show up at times other than the great successes - for example giving out annual green awards or pep talks to staff.
Ensure that leaders are talking about your whole programme when they speak to internal or external audiences.
Keep inserting fresh stories into the narrative so it doesn't get stale.
As an aside, those who give out green business awards do so with all the best of intentions, but they don't encourage continuous improvement. I think league tables are more successful - think Greenpeace's electronics company ranking or the now sadly defunct Sustainable City rankings from Forum for the Future. People who win an award aren't incentivised to win it again the way that people who come top of the league want to maintain that position.
I'm still working my way through The Essential Drucker and I'll be writing up a piece on the substantial chapter on Social Responsibility of Business in the next week or two. But in the meantime I couldn't help see the strong parallels between Drucker's chapter on communications and my own Green Jujitsu approach to engaging people in sustainability.
At its most powerful, communication brings about "conversion", that is, a change of personality, of values, of beliefs, aspirations. But this is a rare, existential event, and one against which the basic psychological forces of every human being are strongly organised.
In other words, are you as great an orator as Martin Luther King Jr? Me neither, so let's not try and convert people to the green movement as we will almost certainly fail.
The only person I know of who has 'converted' people to green in numbers was Al Gore with his presentations and film An Inconvenient Truth, but again few of us can muster the same level of gravitas as a man we know was once the next President of the United States and have the resources to put together such a powerful show. And despite all that effort, he has probably been equalled in impact by the Fox News/Tea Party brigade railing against him.
So, what can we do instead? Drucker reaches back to the Classics:
Socrates points out that one has to talk to people in terms of their own experience, that is, that one has to use carpenters' metaphors when talking to carpenters, and so on.
This is the essence of Green Jujitsu. Instead of trying to convert people to the cause, you translate the cause into a form which the target audience can relate to. Some people try to do this by relating sustainability to familiar domestic situations like putting out the recycling or grumbling at the kids for leaving lights on, but I find that patronising and tangential.
I prefer to appeal to people's professional identity as it is professional behaviour your are trying to change. This means framing sustainability as an engineering problem for engineers, as an economic issue for economists, as a leadership issue for senior executives etc. I must admit that I have never knowingly run an engagement session for carpenters, but it can only be a matter of time!