Organizational Change: The Swiss Army Knife of Sustainability (December 8, 2011)

This event summary is a collaborative effort by Brad Zarnett and Venkat S. Somasundaram

Kevin BradyOn December 8, 2011, TSSS attendees heard from an industry veteran who has been in the field of corporate sustainability for more than 20 years. Kevin Brady from PE International and Five Winds Strategic Consulting shared insights gained from his experience using organizational change strategies to successfully drive sustainability though an organization. Just as a Swiss army knife offers a multitude of tool choices, so does a broad understanding of organizational change strategies offer the sustainability professional a range of techniques to utilize in order to advance sustainability initiatives. The breadth of Brady’s experience with various industry sectors offered the TSSS audience much to draw upon and from which to learn.

It’s a Journey: The presentation began with Brady sharing his personal journey since his York University days. He explained that corporate sustainability is also a journey, one where understanding the risks and opportunities is key. Brady asserted that we’ve moved beyond the initial phase of proving the business case for sustainability and have progressed to a phase where implementation presents our greatest challenge.

Three key phases were defined to outline the sustainability journey: Understand, Interpret and Integrate. This was explained as understanding the context, business risks and opportunities, interpreting the needed strategic direction and integrating sustainability into all aspects of the business to engage hearts and minds.

Stakeholder expectations on the rise: Expectations for sustainable business performance from all stakeholders are on the rise. Brady illustrated the progression of expectations over a period of time – trust me, tell me, show me and involve me.

Brady addressed some challenging realities – stakeholder expectations can be beyond what companies can realistically do and despite their demands for sustainability, few consumers actually support a company’s sustainability plan with their purchasing power.  Nevertheless, there are great success stories, especially once companies progress to the stage of involving stakeholders in their sustainability initiatives.

Internal business priorities vary: As expectations from external stakeholders rise, and competing goals may present themselves, there must be an understanding of the differing business priorities that can exist for various functions and geographic locations within the organization. Brady discussed how different parts of the organization ‘think’ differently, and bringing them together with a shared vision can be the biggest challenge in sustainability. For example, in the marketing department, the business priority is brand and reputation enhancement while in the human resources department, the business priority is attraction and retention.

Internal challenges exist not only between different organizational divisions, but also at multiple levels within the organization. Operational managers who are focused on short term results and KPIs may need to be offered an understanding of how a corporate sustainability vision will positively impact on their business reality. The key is to understand the business priorities of the different divisions and personnel and to tailor strategies to meet their perceived priorities while communicating in language that is easily understood by those you wish to win over.

Brady’s global experience allowed him to offer insights about the way in which sustainability issues can vary in different regions. For example, when looking at North America, South Africa, Asia and Europe, global issues including energy and climate are top priorities for all the four regions. Yet, there is significant variation in regional priorities between such concerns as design for sustainability, life cycle thinking, sustainable production and consumption, ethical governance, air and water pollution.

So, how do we integrate change? After understanding the context and interpreting the strategic direction and business priorities of the organization, how do we integrate and execute change?

Brady suggested a simple framework to explain the different stages of change:

1. Strategy development
2. Priority identification and management system integration
3. “Hard wiring” sustainability into mainstream business processes and accountability systems

There was some discussion of specific examples from Brady’s professional experience. He explained SC Johnson’s Green List (a management system to assess raw materials used in product formulation in order to minimize environmental impact) as an illustration of change at the product development level because of high level commitment from top management. The impact of Green List was not just about a reduced environmental footprint but also about making better products for customer. Brady expressed, “You will know that the organization is changing positively towards sustainability initiatives when there is an alignment of personal and corporate values”

What to do with challenging clients: Driving organizational change is never an easy task. Driving change to encompass greater sustainability can be even more challenging given that decision makers and influencers may question the very need for this change. Brady explained how he had even been compelled to deliver pilot projects without pay in order to win over skeptics. He believes that demonstrating belief and confidence in sustainability is the most effective way to handle the challenging clients. He also reminded the audience that when you take solutions to clients, you must take not only strong convictions and beliefs, but also objective explanations and factual information that supports your convictions.

Listing the organizational success factors for change: Encapsulating his rich years of experience, Kevin listed some key success factors for integrating change in organizations:

• Commitment from senior management
• Clear vision and effective internal communication
• Accountability, incentive and motivational programs for staff
• Stakeholder engagement processes
• Hiring the right people and training them well
• Celebrating success stories internally as well as externally
• Making the objective business case for sustainability initiatives

One of the highlights of the event was the breakout session after Brady’s formal presentation. Participants had the opportunity to share their thoughts with other attendees in small informal groups. Based on the level of noise in the room during the breakout session, and the reluctance of participants to end their small group discussions, it is clear that our TSSS audience has much to share with and learn from each other. We will continue to offer these small group breakout sessions as part of our Speaker Series in order to encourage animated discussion and idea sharing.
Brad Zarnett is the Founder and Director of TSSS.

Venkat S. Somasundaram is a mechanical engineer and a recent MBA grad in Strategy & Sustainability from the Schulich School of Business, York University, Canada. He is currently an independent business and sustainability consultant who believes in integrating sustainable practices into core business models by inclusive stakeholder solutions.