Sustainable Direction – Just Do It!

Dr John Henry Looney, an expert in environmental sustainability attended the Intelligent Projects Forum in March 2012; an event hosted by Pelicam Project Assurance for senior executives with change responsibility.  John Henry has written a brief article describing the stages (and challenges) of change that businesses face as they move to become sustainable.

Dexter Dunphy, eminent professor in corporate sustainability, and colleagues proposed a continuum for businesses moving along the path to becoming a truly permanent and resilient business, after we set upSustainable Direction Ltd (SDL), but his change management approach is on target and close to what SDL has been proposing.  Dunphy first coined the context for a Sustainability Revolution, and while some describe this as the third industrial or even societal revolution the developed world has gone through, it is more than that.  His and our perspectives give us the opportunity to rethink about where we are going, as individuals, companies and societies within the context of global change.  The dates can vary but in the course of the next generation, say the typical 20 year time span from 2010; the world will be as different from today as before and after the Industrial Revolution.  The scale of change will be that significant, and so leading companies are trying to understand and define their response to this challenge, whether it is where will our energy come from, how we use our raw materials, or source and keep our key personnel and clients, and what will we leave behind.  The key issue at the heart of this is – will it be a thriving company or otherwise?

SDL is working in this space, helping companies and public sector organisations explore and define for themselves who they are, what they do and how they will thrive going forward.  Sustainability is of course the financial, social and environmental balance a company achieves to define itself.  Respect and consideration for the environment is to some degree catching up to the others, but this process is helping redefine the understanding of what financial success is, what employee satisfaction is, what stakeholder responsibility might mean, and how we function as global citizens – from our factory, office or cab – and how we can strive to achieve the balance of these that will make us sustainable.  Clearly this is an area for glass half-full people, but we are the ones that define and deliver the future, sustainable by definition, sustainable by design, sustainable by practice.

So, how do we figure out where we are, where we are trying to go, and how to get there?  Dunphy really does give us a good balanced perspective to applying the practice of change management practice to sustainability, as shown below


As we have all experienced within an organisation there are people who reject change and new initiatives or ideas from outside by nature.  Whether this is intended by the organisation for their benefit such as “green thinking”, legislative compliance, or even social media they do not engage and actively reject the idea – cast your mind to smoking bans, recycling, profit sharing, and similar.  After some time this moves into simply being non-responsive to the opportunities, so an improvement to rejection but they are not with the picture.  Individuals and even organisations that respond like this are either limiting the value of their business by not fully taking advantage of the opportunities, or actively destroy it by rejecting it (i.e. refusing to engage with environmental legislation, for example).  Dunphy, creatively, using his Australian vernacular, suggests leaving these rejecting “stealthy saboteurs” and non-responsive “bunker wombats” to themselves to experience increasing isolation and instead focus on the future of your company.  As someone else put it so admirably, “Help them transition to the competition”.

Companies usually move quickly into being compliant with current standards and “keeping up” with the times.  In this way they are conserving the value of their company, but they, rather like the Red Queen in “Alice through the Looking Glass” have to run simply to keep up with where they were.  Legal compliance is clearly a good idea; do you have in your Corporate Risk Register a legal compliance approach that includes environmental legislation?  Is it current?

Businesses that engage with becoming more efficient and proactively anticipating these changes are the ones that are creating value within their company.  By using what you have available already to maximum effect, you are creating value.  By being one of the “front runners”, you are creating value.  In this way, businesses move towards being a sustaining organisation, in the sense of the music term “Sustain” – when sustaining a note, the note continues indefinitely. 

So, as an example, for a fighter pilot the two most useless metrics he has are fuel burnt and runway behind him; instead let’s be forward-focused on what we can do (fuel left and runway ahead).  This lets you move to the next step of efficiency and understand, perhaps simply, how you are doing in terms of resources used per product delivered or produced; SDL finds it very rare for companies to be able to answer easily and promptly how much they use like this, and the larger the organisation the more open they can be about it (sometimes anyway).  So at the efficiency stage your objective is to reduce waste progressively, and increase process and material efficiencies, and typical actions are to reduce resource use, re-designing products, using space more efficiently and increasing output without increasing footprint, we typically see savings of 20% or more.  Good examples we know of include Sainsburys, Marks and Spencer, and an SME Otter Brewery in Devon who reduced water use by 25% with our help, and a Building Supply company who we showed by simply measuring and managing their waste they could produce a £1M per year return.

The next two steps are progressively more challenging, moving to being genuinely proactive, where your objective is to pursue strategic opportunities and particularly to become a market leader.  Typical actions are to re-brand and build wider stakeholder support and be early on new product / service demand curves.  Companies here creatively destroy existing product designs and manufacturing models, and re-invent the firm to shift the prevailing business paradigms in environmental and social ideas.  Examples include Unilever and Method, through improved focus and intent.


2012, ChangeKatie MayerComment