A Trick that Turns Sustainability Naysayers into Supporters

by | Jun 9, 2014

woofter, jennifer, strategic sustainability consultingDo you ever find yourself arguing about the value of sustainability with your colleagues? Or reaching an impasse in determining the right course to set? Whether the decision revolves around how ambitious to be, where to allocate funds, or how to measure risk and uncertainty, it’s all too easy to reach a standstill–with neither side happy nor satisfied. But once again, an article in Harvard Business Review points us in the right direction by suggesting a technique that can cut through the deadlock and shine a light on new options.  In A Simple Nuance that Produces Great Strategy Discussions, author and productivity genius Roger Martin offers this insight:

The key is to switch the fundamental question you consider from what is true to what would have to be true.

Says Martin: What is true provokes arguments, causes proponents of a possibility to dig in, and minimizes the collaborative exploration of ideas. Let’s imagine you put forward a possibility for a strategic direction and, upon hearing the idea, I focus on what I think is true. With this mindset, it is quite likely that I won’t be confident that your idea is valid and I’ll probably start by saying something like “I don’t think that will work,” words that will instantly turn the meeting into a battlefield. When I then raise an alternative strategic direction, you, smarting at my treatment of your idea, will be equally dismissive of me. And so on, back and forth.

When I see this type of situation emerging when working with companies or organizations, I first try to identify the cause behind it. If I can understand why someone is arguing their point to the exclusion of other possibilities, I can more aptly to address it and get the conversation moving again. While often unspoken by the other party, I found that this is what is often going on underneath the surface:

  1. I’m afraid. I don’t know what sustainability (or this particular sustainability decision) might mean for my job ambitions, for my departmental budget, or for my team’s workload. It’s better to just stick with the status quo where it feels safer and is in my comfort zone.
  2. I’m jealous. Why do his ideas always seem to get more consideration than mine? Why is her plan getting green-lighted when my pitch about [something totally different] was shut down last year? If we go down this road, it’s just one more example of how I’m not valued at this organization.
  3. I’m overwhelmed. This sustainability stuff is going to end up on my lap, and I know there won’t be appropriate resources to help me fulfill the tasks. I’m already running at full capacity (and we lost two members of the department last month who aren’t going to be replaced!). I just can’t take on another project right now.

In the past, I’ve used a variety of techniques to bring to the surface peoples’ underlying tension and reluctance so that they can embrace sustainability (or a particular course of action related to the sustainability strategy). But it requires a deft touch, and can go horribly wrong if you’re not careful. After all, no one likes to be accused of being afraid, jealous, or in over their head.

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