Saturday, 15 August 2009

You can't delegate sustainability

My employer, as an organisation, deserves huge praise for successfully tackling some of our sustainability challenges. A year ago our chief executive asked if any employees wanted to take them on. Eager to shine or just plain concerned enough about the environment, an ad-hoc group got a waste recycling programme going, hugely reduced the company's wasteful print production, increased the number of employees cycling to work and we have pushed through a whole load of other small but very significant measures. We have done more than most. But these were mostly external conditions handled by low-level employees acting on their initiative. We made few demands on our company's resources or created any conflicts with the organisation’s purpose.

But without sharing my examination or my criticism, the success of us downstream of the big decisions is unlikely to challenge the senior management’s purpose-driven laissez faire strategy (which is so successful in many other spheres of our business and enabled us in the first place). This could deny them the opportunity to develop their understanding of this issue’s complexity and that creates a possibility of misguided confidence. We have got a lot of other areas we can act on, if only we had the way and the will.

I have come to realise that achieving further wins will need leadership commitment to specific targets and expert managers given resources at the highest priority as in order to continue to make progress, our organisational practise will have to be significantly modified to adapt to increasingly difficult conditions. My research suggests to me that achieving sustainability for organisations with our qualities, quantum leaps will be more successful than piecemeal change. It might just be easier to go build a sustainable organisation from scratch but we have shown in the past that we are not unable to reinvent ourselves this way.

I consider that sustainable practise is possible for my organisation but adaptation to sustainable practise is extremely complex and many of the problems it presents cannot be solved downstream in the organisation but require strategic expert consideration at the core of the organisation’s purpose and at the highest level of authority. It has to be their call. I have found evidence that adaptation to sustainability is everyone’s problem and everyone contributes to its progress. Just one person can undermine adoption of sustainable practise for many others.

At major irrevocable decision points our senior management has demonstrated commitment to sustainable practise. It has many personnel highly engaged with achieving sustainability although some personnel are not and they require more leadership from management. Building that engagement needs to come from the top-down as well as the bottom-up. Unfortunately, like in many other organisations I have examined, our fundamental sustainability priorities presently appear to be located as future ambitions and they get easily sidelined by current affairs especially while the downside of avoidance or delay appears distant.

Demands for change in practise in others without their full engagement puts people in conflict. If you haven't got the authority and you find you're putting someone's back up asking them to put their paper in the recycling bin rather than the trash, your default response is usually no further action. Given huge responsibilities in many areas but without explicit authority or mandate on sustainability, some managers and colleagues are reluctant to innovate or consider the possibility of drastic change, believing that their present or short term ambitions are their priority or that it is irresponsible to act on unsubstantiated or unproven evidence or invest resources into changing practise without explicit requirements by senior management. Therefore, in response to the provable but fairly weak imperatives of customers or personnel, they make small and inefficient adjustments, hoping that sustainability can be achieved in piecemeal fashion.

However while the only threat from unsustainable practise is a distant catastrophe, most organisations believe pragmatic choices are acceptable risks. To act on sustainability places a burden on resources, increases costs and hands competitive advantages in the market to those who won’t accept responsibility.

I have concluded that action on sustainability requires a leap of faith we can prevent that catastrophe because the strongest evidence or validation for our decisions will only be evident long after the opportunities to act have passed. Actions will have to be taken without economic justifications or legislative imperatives because markets and legislation are too slow and too crude to guide best practise and, although counter-intuitive, catching up to where others have led before us is much riskier and harder than innovation of one’s own. Sustainability is like the expansion of the West in the 1800's or any kind of economic speculation or exploration; the biggest spoils usually end up in the hands of the early pioneers who took the biggest risks.

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