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3 shifts to make sustainability actionable


Published on: April 2023

Written by: Matthew Smith

Why do organizations struggle with prioritizing sustainability? It’s clear that the urgency to take action has increased exponentially. Whether it is directives from the board, pressure from investors, agitation from employees, or societal expectations, corporate leaders know they need to act now. Yet many companies are stuck, weighed down by inertia. Their programs and initiatives languish. So, what’s the hold up? And what can we do about it?

Too often, companies respond by setting “moon-shot like” visions and ambitions. They establish lofty Net Zero targets or even bigger societal goals – but then find it difficult to know where to start. It’s too easy to feel overwhelmed by the bold vision and all the changes that you must make to your organization’s operating models, systems, processes, and ways of working to make a sizeable shift.

Furthermore, many organizations’ sustainability strategies, and their execution, sit with a tiny team that works in a silo. This is an issue. Real change takes a village, so your organization needs to focus on engaging all its people to create the ownership necessary to drive change.

The good news is that this is possible. Throughout this series of articles on making sustainability actionable and personable, we’ll discuss ideas, initiatives, and ways of thinking adopted by leading companies across multiple sectors to provoke thinking and spark action.

Empowering your team to lead your organization’s sustainability initiatives may seem like tall marching orders – but getting the ball rolling is not as difficult as it seems. Begin with prioritizing the small changes that will make a big impact.

Start with mindset to move the organization

The first step in helping people take action is enabling them to shift their mindset. We view mindsets as beliefs or way of thinking that determines your outlook or mental attitude. Below the surface, mindsets are fueled by your underlying thoughts and feelings, which ultimately drive your behaviors, choices, and actions. Driving action and results requires a change in behavior, and behavior change starts with shifting mindsets.

As your organization puts sustainability at the heart of its purpose, strategy, and culture, we have found through our work that there are three key mindset shifts your people need to make to ensure their good intentions around sustainability actually turn into action.

  1. Shift from “This is too overwhelming …I’ve no idea where to start!” to “I’m a part of the solution.”

    The overwhelming complexity of sustainability can lead to the sense that no one person, team, or organization can make a difference. This causes paralysis from the boardroom to the front line.

    To combat this limiting mindset, you need to help your people realize that everyone can make an impact and that they are an important and necessary part of the change. This starts with connecting each person’s role to the business’s sustainability vision.

    To do this, invest in building “sustainability acumen.” Similar to how developing business and financial acumen helps people take ownership of how their role impacts business results, developing sustainability acumen enables employees to see their part in making shifts towards sustainability and how their behavior ultimately impacts business results.

    Start by defining sustainability in terms of your organization’s purpose, strategy, and focus areas. Then, use experiential learning that puts people into future state scenarios and contexts to help your people see how they can live the new strategic vision in their daily work.

    For example, in 2020, the CEO of a leading UK bank launched the organization’s new purpose and strategy, which was anchored in sustainability and would require a different approach to engaging with their customers, clients, society, future generations, and investors.

    In service of achieving this vision, the bank launched several initiatives to embed its sustainability goals across the business. One of these was to immerse 5,000 leaders in future state scenarios where they grappled with the tensions and polarities of the different ways of working required to achieve the organization’s vision. The leaders were introduced to simple tools to help them make decisions in difficult moments and had the opportunity to practice. As a result, over 4,000 actions have been taken to pursue the company’s new sustainability-focused purpose and strategy. The leaders were able to translate the organization’s overarching sustainability goals into tangible actions for themselves and their teams.

  2. Shift from “I need to lead us through this change” to “I lead in uncertainty and disruption.”The past few years can be characterized by two words: uncertainty and disruption. While many leaders and organizations associate this characterization with risk, a world of constant change is the reality of the future, especially when it comes to sustainability.

    embrace change as constant, leaders and organizations need to shift their mindset from the assumption that “disruption causes risk” to the understanding that “risk is a result of a lack of disruption.” If your organization isn’t constantly pivoting in anticipation of the future, it will fall behind.

    This is especially true when it comes to sustainability initiatives. In the world of sustainability, new information, technology, and opportunities are limitless. The longer your organization waits to begin implementing its sustainability strategy, the further it falls behind.

    Instead of waiting for the perfect strategy or initiative, leaders need to embrace uncertainty and take on an innovation mindset. In this context, innovation is the discipline of solving problems in new ways under conditions of uncertainty. In practice, an innovation mindset will enable leaders to test new ideas by failing fast and cheaply. Then, with new knowledge and learnings in hand, they can quickly pivot towards better innovations, initiatives, and strategies.

    For example, a U.S.-based energy company recently set a goal to reduce emissions by at least 50 percent by 2035. In the process sought to create new “green” customer experiences and products.

    To create these new experiences, the organizations’ leaders needed to adopt an innovation mindset. They embarked on a week-long innovation challenge with the goal of ideating a new portfolio of solutions to implement within the business. This challenge enabled the team to adopt the mindset that new and disruptive ideas were worth exploring, even if imperfect.

    Following the challenge, top solutions were selected to go through an innovation pipeline, where they would be tested to “fail fast and cheap.” Ultimately, the winning solutions would be launched into the marketplace. 

  3. Shift from “Cause and effect” to “Holistic” thinking.Across the business landscape, value chains have been rigorously optimized for efficiency, which has led to a very linear “cause and effect mindset.” This approach has enabled many incredible innovations, such as Taylorism and the revolution of factory manufacturing. However, tackling the challenges that sustainability presents requires a different mindset.

    To make a real difference, organizations need their people to be able to grapple with competing priorities, hold multiple truths simultaneously, embrace paradoxes, and see the different relationships between the many elements in a complex system.  The challenge though is that most leaders have yet to be trained to think this way! In fact, it’s normally the opposite. To ensure that people, the planet, and profit can all benefit, organizations need to develop their people’s ability to think holistically.

    Leaders need to believe that they can overcome “trade-off inertia” and build disruptive business models where everyone wins. When people shift their approach to solving problems from linear thinking to a holistic framework, the possibilities are limitless.

    For example, in 2018, a multinational mining company launched a strategy where innovation and sustainability were at its core. To achieve its deliberately ambitious goals, the company’s leaders were challenged to think more holistically in their day-to-day decision-making. The organization embarked on a program to help its leaders develop “full impact decision making.”

    This would enable leaders to leverage a wider systems view of what could happen when making decisions and consider second, third, and fourth-tier impacts across multiple stakeholder groups and time horizons. To develop this capability, leaders were immersed in a digital simulation experience that enabled them to practice running the business’s strategic operations over the course of 15 years. Leaders encountered sustainability-related challenges and “wicked problems” that had both short- and long-term impacts on the business. They were also challenged with balancing different stakeholder groups and key financial, environmental, and societal performance metrics that mapped to the company’s KPIs. The organization also invited external partners to the program, which included deliberately dissenting voices, enabling leaders to experience challenges from a different frame of reference. Ultimately this experience helped them gain the critical, holistic thinking approach necessary for leading sustainability for the organization’s future.

It’s no secret that an increased focus on sustainability is critical for the longevity of our people, planet, and profits. The great news is that you likely already have all the people you need with the passion, ideas, and roles to make a difference – you just need to empower them to take action. Start by having a two-way dialogue with your people. Listen to them. Encourage them to test out new ideas. Now, this isn’t a free for all where people get to do whatever they want. But with aligned focus, holistic understanding of the challenge, and disciplined experimentation, your team can simultaneously learn and drive progress, moving forward together. 



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