Saying no is easier than saying yes

Sustainability should be more than a fad.  Whether it is about community, employee or environmental responsibility sustainability implies that the impact needs to be sustained over time.

Many programmes fail (or are not sustained) because sustainability is not simple.

It is tempting to “go green” by replacing incandescent light-bulbs with low-energy CFCs, for example, and then trumpet this as a company doing right by the world.

But any programme is more than one aspect of green.  Building a company that, in environmental terms, builds a sustainable profile has to be something that goes beyond a single aspect of saving energy or contributing to social development programmes.

Environmental sustainability is an ethos and way of operating that needs to be fully integrated through the organisation.  After all, what’s the point of saving energy yet still polluting the environment with chemicals emitted through production processes?

There are a few key reasons why sustainability programmes fail.  And their failure gives us some key lessons on how to implement a sustainable programme.

First, sustainability programmes by their nature are all encompassing and not the province of one department or division.  One comes across companies that have a “sustainability/green officer” but she does not have the necessary gravitas or authority to really make decisions.  It’s therefore important that this person, if one exists, is actually in a very senior level and has been given the right level of authority to implement and make things happen.

This leads to the second point, in complex organisational structures sustainability initiatives cut across divisions.  So if the ‘sustainability officer’ does not have the correct board level authority it’s very difficult for him to input a programme outside of his existing level of authority.

The third reason is that many of these programmes are “woolly”.  Many organisations frame a sustainability initiative around a vision or goal, but not an objective.  Much time is spent talking about “what we are going to do” and not enough on “how we are going to do it” and most importantly about “why we are doing it”.  Clear objectives must be set and this means a tangible result in a specific time period.

The fourth item is an employee issue.  For many individuals initial input on any sustainability programme requires that person doing more than their current job.

Jean-Marie Dru, the Chairman of global advertising network TBWA, once wrote a note to his employees on why saying “no” is easier than saying “yes”.  He listed 30 reasons.  But the one that is most striking is that by saying “yes” to any proposal means that you have to do something.  Get to work.  Take action.

Unless properly motivated this, what we can call, “employee inertia” is difficult to overcome.

Internal marketing programmes are vital for success.  But fundamental is to find those committed individuals who are passionate about the programme.  They sit everywhere.  These are the 20% who will get the 80% moving.  And because the programme aligns with their personal values system the chances of success are increased.

Many employees have seen or heard it all before.  It seems to be a South African syndrome where we are very good at formulating ideas but quite slack in actually implementing them.  As normal citizens we have become cynical about “sounds good” programmes which never go anywhere.

To ensure that a programme does go somewhere, the influencer and passionate group needs to know that (a) the programme is real and not just “hot air” (so the appointment of a senior person is vital), (b) their ideas need to be taken up (and not just “bubble up”), (c) that decisions will be made (and “not deferred” somewhere else).

The final reason for failure is that too much is attempted to be completed too fast.  Yes time is not on our side.  But failure is worse.  When a grand programme is set out with not enough time or resources the programme is very unlikely to succeed.  Better to start slowly, learn lessons and then expand.

For instance, Stellenbosch University recycles all the food-waste from their canteens and hostels.  But they didn’t start with a programme covering all their kitchens at one time.  They started off with one canteen, then moved to a koshuis and then expanded these to a couple more.  Eighteen months later they cover the whole campus and are recycling over seven tons of food-waste a week.

Their success was driven by their ability to start.  And starting small is just the beginning.  All journeys start with one step.  Building a highway with the initial turn of turf.  A relationship with a phone call (or BBM!).  Small beginnings properly implemented lead to big changes.

And this requires someone to just say “yes” and get on with it.