Letter to a Struggling Business Change Agent

This letter was written to a student who approached me for advice on how to engage a company that was just not showing any interest in sustainability …

Dear ______

Thanks for your patience, it’s been a terribly busy time … kids starting school, me starting work … but I am happy to have this very good letter in hand from you, and to have a much better understanding of what you are after.

First, regarding organizations that “don’t see the necessity to change”:  unfortunately, yes, I have my own share of such experiences. To be brief and practical, here is what I’ve found that “works” in such situations. You have a few options (apart from leaving the company and going to somewhere that is more open to the work you want to do):

1. Pull back on the formal attempts (skip GRI reporting for now) and work informally. For example, host a series of informal, brown-bag lunch events, which take no time away from work. Invite someone in to talk, or suggest a discussion series around a book or series of relevant articles. Invite only those whom you *know* to be interested. This requires time, and patience. You have to build that interest and social trust. If the content is engaging and relevant, the group will grow, and eventually the conditions for moving a formal initiative forward will have improved.

(Eventually, you can introduce concepts like Amoeba etc. to that group … and then you will have a team of Change Agents to work with …)

2. Hack the system by injecting some information that requires a response. This could include, for example, finding some examples where money is being lost or risks are being seriously increased, and writing (or finding) a report or news story that highlights this. “Look at this,” you could say — probably saying it first to the same sort of group mentioned in (1) above — “we really have to do something, or the company could be in for trouble.” This can also be framed in terms of opportunities being missed, competitors who are ahead, etc. Again, stay away from terms like GRI and ISO, which just sound like costly paperwork, and focus on the strategic issues that have impact on real competitiveness.

3. Reframe your approach completely, dropping “sustainability” and focusing on “efficiency” “cost-savings” “innovation” etc. Don’t mention climate change or anything else. Let others bring that up …

… and so on, you probably catch my general line of thought here, there are other variations.

I cannot promise any of these methods will “work.” They have worked for me, or clients/colleagues, in the past, in lots of interesting situations. But it has also happened that ideological blindness just wins out. If that happens, you have tough choices about trying to hang in there and “make a bad situation less bad than it would otherwise be,” or move on. I know people who have done both … at every level you can imagine, from big government to small town, college or company.

Donella Meadows’ paper on leverage points is fantastic, but it is highly theoretical and you have to translate it to the real world for strategic purposes. What I described above are variations on things like “indicators” and “information flow” … While indicators “don’t change systems,” they do create the conditions for changing system goals. There is often a step-wise progression up Dana’s ladder of leverage points. Also remember that “GRI” is not an “indicator” intervention:  it is a combination of several Meadows’ leverage points and, for some people, actually counts as a “paradigm shift” — and therefore it is really difficult to promote to them. Better to focus on a few of the most relevant indicators that broaden their perspective and start to open them up a little bit, rather than asking them to bite off the whole thing.

I’m attaching an old paper of mine [The Signal Path] that might be of help here, an essay that will also be in my new book (slightly revised) [See the preview page for this book] . Give this a read too, and let me know if it helps in some way.

Very best,

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