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22 January 2018

Sustainability and true grit

En route to an early morning meeting today I came across the prone figure of a cyclist on one of our off-road cycle paths. As she clambered to her feet and checked nothing was broken, she said she had thought the sheet of ice across the path was slush and, indeed, it looked as if slush had frozen overnight then started to melt this morning resulting in an incredibly slippy rutted surface.

One of my campaigns as a Councillor is to get the City's strategic cycle routes, of which this is part, gritted in cold weather. We have a transport policy which says that cycling is higher in the transport hierarchy than use of private motor car, yet we grit major roads and not supposedly strategic cycle routes.

To me this illustrates the danger of institutional inertia to your Sustainability plans. Everybody nods when I say strategic cycle routes should be gritted, but nobody actually does it, because that would require quite a number of people going out of their way to do things differently. I'm steeling myself for a battle to use the current weather to get the cycle routes gritted next year – if I'm lucky. Obstinance is an important weapon in the Sustainability practitioners' arsenal.



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8 June 2016

Beware the safety of the herd...

herd of african elephants on the move

Have you ever tried making a complaint to a large organisation? You'll get a whole load of guff back about how they take every concern seriously, explaining the process they will follow and what do you almost certainly get by the end? A half acknowledgement that they got something wrong and a convoluted explanation of why they're not going to do a damn thing about it.

Just this morning I presented a large committee (unrelated to my professional career) with photographic evidence of a serious local problem along with other evidence as to the cause. Others around the table simply talked away the problem (with no counter evidence, just anecdote, opinion and subject changing) until it was implicitly agreed that while this was indeed an issue, there was no real need to do anymore than the current, evidently inadequate actions. Next agenda item...

This frustrates the hell out of me, but more seriously, when you look at huge scandals such as the child abuse in the Catholic Church, the emissions cheating in the car industry, or the prevalence of doping in Lance Armstrong-era professional cycling, the herd will always close ranks to see off any perceived threat. The logical knots that groups of people will tie themselves in to avoid uncomfortable truths is astonishing. We are herd animals and the instinct to run with and defend the herd is very strong – which is why whistleblowers get ostracised when they do stand up and say "this isn't right!"

This is one reason why trying to bring sustainability into large organisations is so difficult. Of course the trick is to get the herd moving in the direction you need it to move, but believing that this direction is the best way to go – what I call Green Jujitsu.


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22 February 2016

Never underestimate the ability of an organisation to resist change

vektor image sizifI'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:

Keep involving people in the change process.


BTW If you want to learn how I run highly effective workshops, check out our on-line training course.


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21 November 2014

We are all ethical - until we go to work...

business angel

Interesting piece of research doing the rounds in the media where they found that bankers were more honest when they weren't thinking about being bankers. This suggests that bankers aren't inherently more unethical than the rest of us, but rather that the culture of modern banking is responsible for LIBOR, Forex, PPI and all the other banking scandals.

Culture is an incredibly powerful force - for good or bad. It is incredible how resilient culture is to change, particularly in larger organisations where you get what I call 'institutional inertia'. Management legend Peter Drucker (is said to have) put it like this:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

If you want to change anything for the better - ethics, social impacts, environmental performance - you better start with the culture.

But Drucker also said:

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 Green Jujitsu - work out where the overlap between the existing culture and sustainability sits - and use this as the entry point. It applies just as well to ethical/social issues as it does to green issues.


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17 July 2013

The Struggle for Sustainability

iceclimbGreenpeace don't do things by halves do they? Last week's Ice Climb protest saw 6 climbers scale London's iconic new Shard skyscraper to bring attention to Shell's intentions to drill in the arctic. A heck of a lot of effort, but it paid off as the protest got plenty of publicity - some of it scathing, it has to be said - but publicity nonetheless. Whether that publicity (and the sweat required to achieve it) actually changes anything is another matter.

Seeing the huge physical effort required from the protesters to inch their way up the building reminded me of a recent conversation with the CSR manager of a major UK brand (off the record, unfortunately). The word 'struggle' passed his lips more than once - the struggle to change sometimes quite small things within his organisation, despite its reputation for CSR.

At a sustainability roundtable I took part in a few weeks ago, Andrew Davison of Newcastle upon Tyne lawyers Muckle LLP talked of the struggle to decide whether to change their legal documentation from the traditional single sided printing to double sided. Andrew said they agonised over such a simple decision.

I've often said the biggest barrier to sustainability is just 6 inches wide - the space between our ears. The problem is when you get lots of people together and those 6 inches start to multiply up into what I refer to as 'institutional inertia' - the ability of an organisation to push back against change. Institutional inertia is the sustainability practitioner's worst enemy - the thing that slows everything to a crawl.

Your can use the following tactics to overcome institutional inertia:

  • Perseverance: one of the key messages from The Green Executive interviewees was 'never give up';
  • Cunning: Green Jujitsu says to align sustainability with the existing culture in the organisation - rather than trying to 'do a Greenpeace' and shock people into changing their mind - this works with the inertia, not against it;
  • Leadership: if the boardroom has bought in then they can be deployed to 'unstick' projects when necessary;
  • Raise the sights: if you have ambitious well-communicated stretch targets then small decisions will appear to be 'no brainers' compared to some big strategic decisions;
  • Include stakeholders in the discussion: if you get people together and ask them help work out how (not whether) something can be done, you can gain their buy-in very quickly.

Like scaling a building, sustainability ain't easy. But then again, that's half the fun of it.

Photo: Greenpeace


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