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Sustainability from the inside out


Too often we try to impose sustainability onto others, instead of listening to them and allowing it to grow from the inside out.

I came to this realization years ago when I worked with my colleagues Jeremy Bean and Rob Andrejewski to write the Sustainability Guidebook for Teams (Sustainability Institute, 2014). We used the Guidebook to support unit-level sustainability planning at the university and it was a pivotal professional experience for me. We had a great team and the work was very insightful and rewarding.

What we stumbled upon was this simple insight: many sustainability efforts--and change efforts in general--attempt to throw ideas into a box and hope others find them compelling. We create programs hoping others find them useful. We create initiatives hoping others are attracted to them. One day at a breakfast meeting, this appeared backwards.

Two Different Approaches: Prescriptive vs. Consultative

Someone drew a picture on a placemat of a box with an arrow going into it. This represented the old way of thinking. The conventional view says that people don't care and so we have to prod and push and cajole them into signing onto our stuff. But we said, how about going inside the box? To us, this represented a new perspective: people do care, about a lot of things, and if we take the time to listen and learn, motivation will arise from within. We called this a consultative approach to sustainability as opposed to the old prescriptive approach.

The consultative approach believes in the inherent value, passion and unique strengths of each person, each department and each business unit. The whole approach is one of discovery: plumbing the depths of their skills, unique assets, special technology, and novel approaches to solving business challenges through a broader perspective. You leave your agenda at the door. You drop your ego. You lower yourself and come to serve instead of being served. Author Daniel Pink points to this important change in perspective in his book To Sell is Human. One of the keys to moving others in an age of what he calls "information symmetry" is what he calls "attunement": becoming tuned to the values, needs, interests, abilities and aspirations of the person.

“Attuning yourself to others—exiting your own perspective and entering theirs—

is essential to moving others”.

-Daniel Pink, To Sell is Human

This stands in contrast to what I have often witnessed (in myself and in others) when it comes to sustainability. Instead of tuning in to the person I am with, I try to change their channel. Rather than entering their perspective with sincere interest, I have tried to push them into my perspective with blind urgency. I dare say that many in sustainability could be accused of acting like a used car salesman. Over here we have a great deal for you. It's perfect for what you are looking for and runs like new. And you don't want to miss out on the great sale we are having.....

The prescriptive approach believes in the inherent value of sustainability. The whole approach is one of persuasion: using popularized psychological and behavioral change techniques to get people to do things they otherwise wouldn't do. We mistake reloading for listening. Reloading is when I appear to be listening but I am only preparing my response. I don't really hear you. I have the steps I want you to take, the issues I want you to believe in, the values I want you to embrace and the worldview I want you to adopt. It becomes a game of persuasion.

People resist this approach and, frankly, they should!

Inside Out and the Road Ahead: Keeping the Bubble in the Middle

The challenge with the consultative approach is that:

  1. People don't always know what they need

  2. Society needs changes at a rate and significance that is inconvenient and unrecognized by most people

So I am not suggesting that we allow people's immediate needs, whims and preferences dictate our work to make a better world. If we only take the consultative approach we can end up with incremental improvements that will never disrupt markets, flip the narrative, change policies, and create new products, organizations and businesses.

So, what can be done?

Consider the metaphor of the level.

Used in construction or home projects to make sure a surface is precisely flat or at 90 degrees, the level is an essential tool. I own several of these and even have a small one in my workbag. The key to using the level is to find where the bubble stays in the middle, between the two lines. Work to integrate social and environmental innovation into business is like this.

On one hand, we need to take a consultative approach and become deeply tuned into the people we are working with. I would guess that most sustainability people need to at least double the amount of time spent to accomplish this attunement. On the other hand, we need to take what I call a "transformative approach." Beyond consultative and prescriptive, the transformative approach points to the leaders responsibility to paint a compelling vision of the future. It is simply your job to know where you must go.

"Keeping the bubble in the middle" means balancing these two approaches: the consultative and the transformative. It is a dynamic equilibrium to borrow a term from ecology. Every day/week/month the bubble is fluid and in motion. What percentage of time is it between the lines? That is the determining factor.

Consultative = you start where people are

Transformative = you are clear about where you need to go

You become attuned to how you can serve those around you. Your "brand" becomes one of someone who gives first, who listens, and who asks good questions. If your brand is that you are pushy, a bad listener, or that you talk too much. You have work to do.

At the same time, you appropriately find ways to educate, to inform, and to awaken imaginations of a compelling future. You don't let people rest on incremental changes although you celebrate them. You have your eye ever on the horizon while your heart remains with the people around you. If they ever sense it has become the other way around, you will lose ground---and we may lose a part of the future.

Bob Langert, the longtime head of sustainability at McDonald's exemplified this idea as he balanced time he spent with Greenpeace and time he spent with his executive team. Greenpeace was clear about where McDonald's needs to go (transformative) and Langert was unique in his willingness to listen to them (even travel through the Amazon with them). And his executive team was surely crystal clear on the market and business realities confronting them (consultative).

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