50 Reasons Why Sustainability Initiatives Fail, and 5 Ways to Fix It

Having trouble getting your company to move strategically towards sustainability? You're not the first person to struggle with changing corporate behavior -- and in fact the biggest obstacles probably don't have anything to do with sustainability per se, but rather the reluctance and difficulty associated with corporate change management in general. 

Reason #1: "We've never done it before." Reason #4: "We tried it before." Reason #13: "Our competitors are not doing it." Reason #17: "Sales says it can't be done." Reason #18: "The service department won't like it." Reason #45: "We're doing all right as it is." Reason #50: "It's impossible."

Do any of these sound familiar? They are part of 50 Reasons Why We Cannot Change, a list first published in 1959, and then republished in Fast Company in 1993. And as Bill Taylor points out in The More Things Change, the More Our Objections to Change Stay the Same, "what remains just as amazing 20 years later is that most leaders in most organizations face precisely the same set of worries and pushbacks today."

Taylor goes on to posit five principles to "change how we make change". I've listed them below, and added my own comments about how they apply particularly to sustainability change agents.

#1: Be Original

Taylor: Most organizations in most fields suffer from a kind of tunnel vision, which makes it hard to envision a more positive future. That's why the first principle of change is originality — for leaders to see their organization and its problems as if they've never seen them before, and, with new eyes, they need to develop a distinctive point of view on how to solve them. 

So often we begin a discussion about sustainability with a list of what we need to stop doing. Stop wasting electricity. Stop traveling by airplane. Stop using that type of packaging. Stop using that supplier. It can be a bleak conversation, especially when the tone is negative and restricting.

A better option is to make specific reference to what doors sustainability can open up -- how can sustainable innovation lead to new product design? What new revenue might appear by rethinking our waste streams? What new customers might we attract by revising our product line? What new kinds of collaboration could we discover by partnering with our suppliers to reduce logistics?

#2: Be Forward Looking

Taylor: In troubled organizations rich with tradition and success, history can be a curse — and a blessing. That's why the second principle of change is to break from the past without disavowing it

You can't turn a page and -- poof -- have a totally new organization, with a fresh culture, blank supply chain, and no internet history. Companies come with baggage, both positive and negative. Effective sustainability change agents will identify and use the best of a company's history to drive new initiatives. 

History of outsourcing? Use that experience to focus on supply chain collaboration. History of leveraging lobbying and public policy to create legislation in your favor? Use that expertise to push government to act faster on sustainability (in a way that will let you leapfrog competitors!). History of litigious behavior? Decide how your legal know-how can be leveraged to advance your sustainability goals.

#3: Be Transformational

Taylor: The job of the change agent is not just to surface high-minded ideas. It is to summon a sense of urgency inside and outside the organization, and to turn that urgency into action... That's why the third principle of change is for leaders to encourage a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo, to persuade their colleagues that business as usual is the ultimate risk, not a safe harbor from the storms of disruption.

I mentor a number of fledgling sustainability consultants and one of their biggest gripes is that clients don't act on their brilliant ideas. I've seen it a hundred times -- both by internal and external sustainability professionals -- a challenge is identified, a solution is presented... and nothing happens. In most cases, the decision-maker even agrees that the solution is a good one, but doesn't feel a sense of urgency to make the change. Effective change agents must find the sense of urgency and make change a more attractive option than staying the course.

#4: Be Collaborative

Taylor: It may be lonely at the top, but change is not a game best played by loners... That's why the fourth principle of change requires a sense of "humbition" among leaders — enough ambition to address big problems, enough humility to know you don't have the answers. 

Sustainability initiatives by their very nature are complex, with unintended consequences, trade-offs, and competing interests. Whether your goal is to mitigate risk, drive innovation, or improve employee engagement -- you will be most effective when you take multiple perspectives into account. The worst enemy of a sustainability initiative is a decision-maker in a vacuum.

#5: Be Values-Driven

Taylor: Change is as much about consistency as it is about disruption... And that speaks to the fifth principle of change: If, as a leader, you want to make deep-seated change, then your priorities and practices have to stay consistent in good times and bad times.

Sustainability can't just be a priority in good times, or (alternately) as a last-ditch effort to save the company from ruin. It can't just be today's hot topic (like quality was in the 1990s). It requires nothing less than totally rethinking your entire business, business model, industry, personal values, workforce development strategy, and approach to strategy and planning. 

Overwhelmed? You should be; it's a giant undertaking. But take heart because you don't need to do sustainability *in addition* to everything you already do. You just need to use a lens of sustainability to view things (personal values, business model, etc.) in a new light. When you tackle risk management, use the lens of sustainability to expand your vision and consideration of material issues. When you think about talent attraction and retention, consider how sustainability trends will influence hiring practices over the next decade. In essence, integrate sustainability into what you already do -- don't create a separate system.

Want some help figuring out what sustainability means for your company, and how to approach sustainability change management? Contact us for a free consultation. Not ready for an individual session? Download our white paper on Sustainability Change Management. You'll be glad that you did.

Thanks to 2degrees for publishing our article!

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