Sustainability is disruptive talk but wears incremental trousers

Our organizations are changing, but because we’re not paying attention, we’re in danger of missing a real open goal. 

Sustainability is about change. Specifically, changing what our organizations do and how they do it. But while we’re good at looking at the biggest picture and thinking long-term, we’re missing what’s going on inside our organizations. 

Our organizations are broken. A paltry 32 percent of U.S. workers and 13 percent of worldwide workers are engagedU.S. productivity growth rates are at a historic low, growing just 1 percent between 2007-16. Today’s organizations are based on yesterday’s strategies — Taylorist principles of command and control in an industrial era when workers weren’t trusted or highly educated, and when change and communication happened slowly. Optimized for efficiencies in a predictable world. People at the top had the power, not the people on the streets. 

That’s why, when it comes to innovation, it all happens outside of the organization or in specially branded, hived off programs. Isolation is necessary to protect fragile ideas from the mothership’s entrenched system that rewards following orders and personal brands over delivering results.

You would think it’s music to sustainability professionals’ ears. After all, we’re about radical transformation, especially with the climate clock ticking ever more loudly. Yet we still seem fixated on what we need to do rather than on how to do it. Which technology is right to reduce our impact? What’s the project or program? Who’s the best partner?

Nearly all of our strategy, change or innovation programs are built on the same assumptions that are holding mainstream business back. The same assumptions that the likes of Amazon have challenged, changed and have proven to be defunct. It reached $100 billion in sales faster than any other company in history, and Amazon Web Services (its cloud computing subsidiary) reached $10 billion in annual sales faster than Amazon itself did.

This isn’t to say Amazon has the silver bullet; the solutions for one firm are different from that of another because people aren’t robots. That said, movements such as the Responsive Org and Corporate Rebels have identified key principles. Here are two that sustainability plays right into. 

From detailed strategy to mission purpose 

I help organizations define and live their purpose and values. When it comes to purpose, I’ve started to talk about it as the ultimate expression of how you create value, because it helps get the purely commercial folks on board. Purpose is outward facing, so people can use it as a stop/go decision-making tool to react to changes on the outside and stay aligned. Strategy, on the other hand, is prescriptive in the way it’s normally produced, rigid with no room for adaption. Sustainability is ultimately about purpose because it’s outward facing. We can help define and implement purpose. 

From hierarchy to networks

We know that moving from negative to positive impact means collaborating with others across silos and seniorities to achieve our goals. Tight hierarchy doesn’t enable this without agreement from a handful of people higher up. It’s tight and efficiency focused, not adaptive and outcome focused. We know how to operate in networks, from champions to supplier forums and partnerships, and should be talking about this skill set more to get our seat at other tables. 

But here are two more that we’re not so good at. 

From consensus to consent

Because we operate across organizational structures, trying to influence everything from operations to marketing to internal communications to strategy, we seek consensus on decisions. Yet, as we all know from bitter experience, consensus means watering things down, often at the expense of impact.

Consent, on the other hand, means moving forward unless there’s an explicit no. The distinction is subtle, but powerful. Consensus happens when there’s no appetite for risk. Consent recognizes risk is inherent in doing anything new. Sustainability is, by definition, about doing new things so maybe it’s time we considered how these decisions get made, not just what is being decided.

From planning to experimentation

Jeff Bezos knows this well. He talks about "disagreeing and committing" and "type 1 and 2 decisions." Type 1 decisions are irreversible and need careful consideration. Type 2 decisions can be reversed.

In a world of uncertainty and imperfect information, experimenting gives us more information to either adjust or double down. As a consultant who’s worked on his fair share of sustainability and communications strategies, I know all too well how much time and budget goes into planning. Experimentation, feedback loops and iteration are talked about at the beginning but get dropped as the sign-off deadlines approach.

The plan matters more than finding effective solutions. Shame on us. 

If sustainability is really about change, then we need to work on how to align ourselves with the forces of change rippling through our organizations.