A Trick that Turns Sustainability Naysayers into Supporters

A dispatch from SSC President, Jennifer Woofter:

Do you ever find yourself arguing about the value of sustainability with your colleagues? Or reaching an impasse in determining the right course to set? Whether the decision revolves around how ambitious to be, where to allocate funds, or how to measure risk and uncertainty, it's all too easy to reach a standstill--with neither side happy nor satisfied. But once again, an article in Harvard Business Review points us in the right direction by suggesting a technique that can cut through the deadlock and shine a light on new options.  In A Simple Nuance that Produces Great Strategy Discussions, author and productivity genius, Roger Martin, offers this insight:

The key is to switch the fundamental question you consider from what is true to what would have to be true. 

Says Martin: What is true provokes arguments, causes proponents of a possibility to dig in, and minimizes the collaborative exploration of ideas. Let’s imagine you put forward a possibility for a strategic direction and, upon hearing the idea, I focus on what I think is true. With this mindset, it is quite likely that I won’t be confident that your idea is valid and I’ll probably start by saying something like “I don’t think that will work,” words that will instantly turn the meeting into a battlefield. When I then raise an alternative strategic direction, you, smarting at my treatment of your idea, will be equally dismissive of me. And so on, back and forth.

When I see this type of situation emerging when working with companies or organizations, I first try to identify the cause behind it. If I can understand why someone is arguing their point to the exclusion of other possibilities, I can more aptly to address it and get the conversation moving again. While often unspoken by the other party, I found that this is what is often going on underneath the surface:

1.     I'm afraid. I don't know what sustainability (or this particular sustainability decision) might mean for my job ambitions, for my departmental budget, or for my team's workload. It's better to just stick with the status quo where it feels safer and is in my comfort zone.

2.     I'm jealous. Why do his ideas always seem to get more consideration than mine? Why is her plan getting green-lighted when my pitch about [something totally different] was shut down last year? If we go down this road, it's just one more example of how I'm not valued at this organization.

3.     I'm overwhelmed. This sustainability stuff is going to end up on my lap, and I know there won't be appropriate resources to help me fulfill the tasks. I'm already running at full capacity (and we lost two members of the department last month who aren't going to be replaced!). I just can't take on another project right now.

In the past, I've used a variety of techniques to bring to the surface peoples' underlying tension and reluctance so that they can embrace sustainability (or a particular course of action related to the sustainability strategy). But it requires a deft touch, and can go horribly wrong if you're not careful. After all, no one likes to be accused of being afraid, jealous, or in over their head. 

What is the solution?

Says Martin: If instead we can focus from the outset on what would have to be true, the conversation can head in the direction of collaboration and mutual exploration of ideas. How? If an idea or possibility strikes you as less than compelling, resist the urge to declare it “not true.” Instead, ask yourself, what would have to be true for me to feel that is a great option? If you identify the features that would have to be true, you can explore whether those really hold true and learn something about that possibility. The process of exploration may well help you modify and enhance the best idea currently in your head.

After reading Martin's solution, I can feel myself relaxing- my shoulders drop away from my ears, my breath starts to deepen, and my brain perks up with possibilities. It's amazing how such a little shift in the question can bring about such a different response! And by using variations of this question, you can directly apply it to your situation:

  1. What would have to be true about [the sustainability decision] for it to be aligned with your personal goals? Your professional goals?
  2. What would have to be true about [the sustainability initiative] for you to feel confident in accepting additional responsibility?
  3. What would have to be true about [the sustainability strategy] for you to go "all in" with enthusiasm?
  4. What would have to be true about [the sustainability tool] for you to believe it was worth the cost and upheaval to the status quo?
  5. What would have to be true about [the sustainability training] for you to make it a core part of your team's skills development program?

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Suddenly, it's not just my idea versus your idea, but an authentic exploration of the qualities necessary for a successful outcome.

But wait! There is a bonus... 

Says Martin: In addition, taking this approach will likely have the effect of convincing other members of the team to explore your option in similar fashion – and they will build on yours just as you have built on theirs. It does take two to tango in life and if you refuse to battle from the outset, it is likely that those around you will avoid that behavior too. It is not as though no deaths occur in this process. But the ideas kill themselves rather than get killed by someone. When everybody comes to agreement as to what would have to be true for an option to be a great choice, the group can determine what tests it would have to conduct to determine whether those things hold true or not. Note that the tests are not any one person’s tests but rather those of the group as a whole.

One of the toughest parts about sustainability planning is dealing with office politics and other people's pet projects. But this approach offers two key benefits. 

  • First, employees are able to openly and frankly offer their ideas about what would need to be in place for a particular project to be a success. This can give the C-suite a better idea of the on-the-ground impact of the CEO's crazy idea about wind turbines on the roof. 
  • Second, it allows decision-making to proceed in a more transparent way. Rather than the final decision being made behind closed doors, the final selection of options can be made in the clear light of day based upon an open and honest discussion about needs, wants, and the qualities being sought.
  • Third, the quality of the initial ideas improves. When it's clear to everyone about what needs to be true for an idea to pass muster, they will begin to integrate that thinking into their own processing and will start bringing their best options to the table.

Your Turn: Does It Work? 

Have you tried this approach? If so, what happened when you shifted the conversation to what needs to be true? If you haven't tried it yet, give it a try and let us know how it goes! I'll definitely be using it in my next sustainability strategy planning session -- and I can already see the doors opening to better and more productive conversations!

Thanks to Environmental Leader for publishing this article!