Where Are Your Sustainability Blind Spots?

Enjoy this article written by Jennifer Woofter that was featured on the 2Degrees website in 2013:

The journey towards sustainability is a marathon--a race of a thousand steps. And whether you are on the first step or somewhere in the middle (since no one is close to the end, right?), it's likely that you have made some assumptions, used estimates, or put aside things that aren't working. 

That's not a bad thing -- in fact, to effectively move forward to attain such an ambitious goal you must deal with complexity and uncertainty. Otherwise, you will face "analysis paralysis".

However, the risk of taking that approach is that by simplifying, focusing, and systematizing your sustainability efforts, you can inadvertently create blind spots--weaknesses that you don't know are there. Blind spots are a particularly challenging problem because it isn't easy to fix something if you don't even know that it's broken.

John Dame and Jeffrey Gedmin offer Three Tips for Overcoming Your Blind Spots in Harvard Business Review. We've pulled their best quotes (in italics, below) and then added our own thoughts about how to apply their advice to sustainability practitioners.

Use a Devil's Advocate to Fight Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a well-documented tendency for people to draw conclusions and interpret events in a way that conforms to previously held beliefs--leading to poorly reasoned decision-making based on incomplete information and judgments. (Wikipedia has a great write-up on the phenomenon here.

"When you have a theory about someone or something, test it. When you smell a contradiction – a thorny issue, an inconsistency or problem – go after it. Like the orchestral conductor, isolate it, drill deeper. When someone says – or you yourself intuit – 'that’s just an exception,' be sure it’s just that. Thoroughly examine the claim."

Whether you are predisposed to believe that the CFO will never get on board with your sustainability plan, or that your fellow employees care deeply about sustainability, it's essential that you incorporate a way to test those assumptions before investing too much time and resources into a plan of action. Regularly sit down with executives to better understand their priorities and pressures. Survey employees to determine which sustainability issues are most important to them, and how they rank in comparison to other workplace concerns. Test your beliefs and predispositions. And then test some more.  

"Dealing with confirmation bias is about reining in your impulses and challenging your own assumptions. It’s difficult to stick to it day in and out. That’s why it’s important to have in your circle of advisers a brainy, tough-as-nails devil’s advocate who – perhaps annoyingly, but valuably – checks you constantly."

If your team is big enough, incorporate a devil's advocate. If it's just you, set aside time in your schedule (or in your process) to wear the devil's advocate hat yourself. Ask questions like:

  • What are we missing?
  • What could go wrong?
  • What alternate approaches can we take?
  • What are the unintended consequences that might pop up?

Use the role of devil's advocate to surface objections that might arise from others on your team, discover better routes to success, and assess a wider range of program outcomes. 

Keep a Journal to Combat Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is also called the "knew it all along" effect, and causes "extreme methodological problems while trying to analyze, understand, and interpret results" (Wikipedia). It makes us think that things are more predictable, simpler, and more straightforward than they really are. For a challenge as complex as sustainability, this is a major concern.

Here’s one way to check hindsight bias: Keep a diary. And record minutes from important meetings...What becomes painfully clear is that we failed to predict much of anything – claims after the fact notwithstanding.

While acting as a mechanism to keep us honest about our ability to forecast the future, a detailed journal provides an added bonus: additional insight into how we make decisions. Once you've been using a journal for at least several months, go back and review it to see what patterns emerge. (For example, you may find that your boss is always grumpy in October, or that you have a tendency to lose your temper after a big success.)

Hire a Diverse Staff to Eliminate Groupthink

Groupthink is is "a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences." (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Fighting groupthink should start at the hiring stage. Look for people who share your basic values and purpose, but who are also tough, independent, and able to tell you what they think. Moreover: check that decisions at all levels in the company are being made on the basis of rationality, not merely flowing from authority or a tendency (however subconscious) to conform.

While sustainability practitioners (in-house, or consultants) may not be in a position to control who is hired in a company, there are other ways to avoid groupthink. More importantly, make sure that you don't shut yourself off from people who don't see the world from your viewpoint. Just as many sustainability leaders bemoan the closed-minded and isolationist philosophies of climate-change deniers, we too can fall prey to "preaching to the choir" and focusing only on talking to other sustainability believers. 

This approach does NOT mean that you must engage and bring in people who are intentionally at loggerheads with you. But it is important to understand why people feel the way that they do, what motivates them, and what values you share with them. Take note- it not only applies to big topics (like global climate change), but also to more discrete topics (like how to approach the topic of Green IT for your next budget cycle). Make a point to intentionally solicit information from a wide variety of perspectives early on in your process--your ultimate success may depend on it.

Looking for ways to become a better sustainability consultant? Check out our blog post that talks about 8 steps to improving as a sustainability consultant!