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Data Paralysis and Over-Ambition: Are They Robbing Your Sustainability Team’s Momentum?

By 3p Contributor

By Nikki Pava

The fossil fuels you use each day took 300 million years to form. Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year alone. What on earth is your team supposed to do with statistics of this magnitude? It seems that your every action matters, and at the same time, no change could possibly be enough.

While it is important to have a firm grasp on the big-picture reality of the effects of business choices and the seriousness of the many environmental threats to the planet, it is equally important that Sustainability Teams in companies avoid two common pitfalls when formulating their corporate response: paralysis and over-ambition.

Paralysis: All actions add up.

Don’t become so overwhelmed by the numbers gathered from preliminary research for a new sustainability initiative that you hesitate to put a plan in motion. Movement in the right direction will begin to add up and even the smallest micro-changes will have an impact. Environmental and social change builds from the bottom up and has a ripple effect that will reach all levels of the company, in addition to all stakeholders, over time. (For more on this see my recent Triple Pundit post: Climate Leaders Take Cues From Nature To Inspire Optimism.)

Over-ambition: Be aware of your limits.

Take inventory of your capacity. A team of employees mandated by the company to work on sustainability issues will have a different capacity than a team of volunteers that is focusing on environmental and social issues in their free time. Additionally, it is helpful to set goals and milestones that are attainable. For example, a newly-formed Sustainability Team focused on decreasing their company’s waste stream by 25% in six months will not achieve its goals until a good employee engagement program focused on recycling and composting is developed and used over time. Such a meaningful change requires a fundamental shift in the habits and patterns of company employees.

There’s a fine line between “being ambitious,” which is an important characteristic for any individual or team to possess, and “over-ambition,” which can create exhaustion and fatigue. In terms of momentum-killers, over-commitment is second only to apathy. Where apathy accomplishes nothing, over-ambition tries to accomplish everything, inevitably leading to rapid burnout and ultimately, disengagement. In addition to producing few lasting results, such a turbulent introduction to the work of sustainability will leave a bad taste in the mouth of your team members, potentially preventing future successes.

There are a myriad of psychological studies linking effort-reward imbalance and over-commitment in the workplace to psychological stress, depression, and other breakdowns in health. The same principles hold true for Sustainability Teams.

“Organizations with high initiative fatigue frequently suffer from the failure to build a powerful leadership coalition and lack an engagement effort that connects the initiative to the daily routines of the affected employees” (32).

-Adam Werbach Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto

The 2016 Bain Sustainability and Change Survey found that out of 301 companies engaged in sustainability transformations, only 2% met or exceeded their sustainability goals. 81% reported diluted results and 16% failed to achieve even half of their original projections. That doesn’t mean these teams didn’t accomplish meaningful work, but it does mean they missed a crucial chance to build momentum for long-term change.

In order to decrease or even eliminate paralysis and over-ambition, Melissa Malkin-Weber, Sustainability Director of Self-Help Credit Union and Ventures Fund (SHCU), encourages new teams to “find small things that are non-symbolic to do at first and then build up.” When the first thing your Sustainability Team does is aim too high and miss the mark, you risk losing company trust and stakeholder investment before you’ve even begun.

As your Sustainability Team gets off the ground, it is important to generate momentum and investment before successfully tackling macro-level changes. “Sustainability Teams build their ability to impact an organization,” Malkin-Weber explains, “by demonstrating value and results.” To best accomplish this, she encourages teams to “find projects that are both meaningful AND provide a payback for the organization.”

Malkin-Weber knows how effective this model is, because her job is the result! SHCU’s Environmental Stewardship Committee started as a grassroots employee campaign to transform SHCU into a triple bottom line organization. As the team established themselves, they focused on generating small sustainability wins like finding ways to eliminate Styrofoam in break rooms.

One of their early initiatives, “The Great Paper Smackdown,” was an interoffice competition. Each floor of the building competed to see who could use the least amount of paper in a set period of time. The initiative was fun, free, and saved the company money. It also was a great opportunity for the team to reach out to new members and create a positive atmosphere around their work.

As these small successes garnered support and engagement, the team set their sights on bigger and bigger projects. Eventually, they realized they needed full-time support to reach their now lofty goals. So, several team members used their fundraising skills to secure a grant so SHCU could hire a full-time Sustainability Director. Shortly after, Malkin-Weber was hired as the organization’s first Green Initiatives Manager.

To avoid paralysis, develop initiatives and goals that can be integrated into the company’s model and culture in sustainable ways. Teams that focus on a company’s climate change milestones are extremely important at this moment in time. Use that energy and excitement to do anything possible to decrease waste, energy, and water use, however, be aware that over-ambitious plans can have a negative impact on a Sustainability Team’s momentum.

When employees truly desire to do meaningful work and integrate the company’s sustainability initiatives with the employee’s daily responsibilities, and managers, owners, and other leaders understand the capacity of the employees, that company’s possibilities to impact global transformation are endless – despite the overwhelming data.

Nikki Pava is the founder of Alegria Partners, which works with entrepreneurs and business leaders to design, implement and measure profitable sustainability strategies for their companies.

Photo: Nikki Pava

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