Organizational Sustainability: Searching for the Switch

By: Stephanie Barr, Research Associate and Green Schools Specialist

In a recent report from MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group[1], the number of companies implementing and profiting from sustainability initiatives has increased significantly in recent years.  Sustainability is becoming an intrinsic part of corporations – practically synonymous with innovation. 
The results from this report illustrate interesting characteristics of organizations which have seen success through sustainability initiatives and those which have not.  A few of these key characteristics included the adoption of new organizational structures, effective communication, finding bright spots, and integrating charismatic leadership.
Of the businesses profiting from successful sustainability agendas, the researchers found that they were not integrating sustainability into their pre-existing organizational structure.  Instead, they had adopted new structures, introduced new lines of communication, and established new performance metrics.  In Chip & Dan Heath‘s book, Switch, they discuss that in order “to change someone’s behavior, you have to change that person’s situation”[2].  A sustainability agenda requires a shift in behavior and cannot be successful if the organizational structure does not evolve to support it.
In Switch the authors describe people as being motivated by their brains and their emotions, using the image of a Rider (brain) trying to control an Elephant (emotion) to illustrate the difficulty in shifting behavior.  They propose however – and this is apparent in the MIT report as well – that if organizations motivate employees analytically and emotionally, change is more successful. One important analytical motivation is the communication of an intrinsic link between sustainability, innovation, and profit.  The organization must have a unified focus that sustainability is a key to business growth and innovation, and this must be monitored and reported to stakeholders.
Another key strategy used was to increase collaboration and communication across business units.  An aspect of this was the identification of “bright spots” [2].  When one department, or branch, successfully implements a new sustainability initiative their methods are evaluated and replicated across other units. This strategy of focusing on bright spots is very effective because it shifts focus from problems to solutions.  During change initiatives our first inclination is to focus on the problems, on everything that is not aligned with the vision. The work seems immense and those leading the change can quickly feel overwhelmed and discouraged.  Finding bright spots – and publicizing the heck out of their successes – provides the energy and passion which will sustain the team.
Finally, the MIT report illustrated how critical integrated, charismatic leadership was to an organization’s success in implementing and profiting from a sustainability agenda.  The researchers found that the most successful companies had strong leadership buy-in, most having established a Chief Sustainability Officer and an integrated management team to support sustainability objectives.  Coupled with a vision with an emotional hook, integrated sustainability leadership provides the direction and clarity needed for the grueling change process.
If you are interested in learning more about organizational and behavior change for sustainability, I highly recommend reading Heath’s Switch, Kotter’s Leading Change [3], and MckEnzie-Mohr’s Fostering Sustainable Behavior [4].