Putting the Management back in Change Part 3: Vision

In my first article in this series, “Putting the Management Back in Change“, I began looking at what it really takes for companies to successfully institutionalize sustainability and truly be “green firms”. The common misconception that having LEED projects in your portfolio makes you green doesn’t tell the full story and misrepresents what it really takes to align a company’s processes, systems, operations and project delivery with sustainability.  Change is hard, and that’s why so many firms get stuck at the “random acts of sustainability” stage. Too frequently, I encounter firms who have not realized that becoming a truly green firm requires intentional change efforts that tie to culture, management and methodology.

In this series, I use Harvard business guru John Kotter’s 8 step model for organizational change as a framework to focus on sustainability. Previously, I discussed the need to create a sense of urgency and to build guiding coalitions to create buy-in and grow momentum. In this article, I’ll focus on the importance of Vision which gives purpose and breathes life into the entire sustainability effort.  As Kotter says, “Without a coherent and sensible vision, a change effort dissolves into a list of confusing and incompatible projects.”

The words Vision and Mission can set eyes rolling…how many times have we sat in groups of people word-smithing a vision or mission statement? The crafting of a sentence is not what I mean by vision in this article. I’m referring to the heart and soul of purpose and identity.

Vision is important because it is the picture of the desired future; it helps define the organizational purpose and influence its culture. Vision points the way, defines the direction and target. Sustainability visions are particularly important because institutionalizing sustainability requires behavior change and engaging an organization’s culture, which cannot happen without a compelling vision.

Is the commitment to sustainability an outgrowth of fundamental core beliefs or an acknowledgement of market realities and business context?  Is it a defining characteristic or one thread among many? For every organization, the answer might be different, but the question needs to be asked. What does the commitment to sustainability mean to you?

Is it about being a thought leader?

Is it about innovation?

Is it about reliable and consistent performance for your clients?

Is it about your own stewardship as a company

Is it about your relationship to the larger community (local or global)

Is it about excellence in your field?

Is it about how you collaborate with others?

Is it about carbon neutrality and combating climate change?

Every organization must explore these issues and find their own answers.

Let’s look at USGBC’s vision statement: “Buildings and communities will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation.”  This is a loaded sentence, wonderfully brief but full of implication. To manifest this vision, “within one generation”, it is clear that very specific actions must be taken. Their mission statement, “…to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life” gives more specificity to the scope of their vision. The 6 other examples below illustrate a range of length, detail and approach– but all of them convey thoughtful purpose and connect to the company’s core identity.

Habitat for Humanity: A world where everyone has a decent place to live.

LG Electronics’ Promise3 represents the promises made to the people, the Earth, and LG Electronics itself: a society in which LG Electronics’ employees, stakeholders, and the entire population can live happily; the Earth which we help make a cleaner, safer place for generations to come by carrying out various environmental activities; and LG Electronics as one of the top international players thanks to its innovative spirit.LG Electronics aims at to realize these three dreams.”

Mithun’s mission is to: Inspire a sustainable world through leadership, innovation, and integrated design. Mithun is committed to creating beautiful, vibrant cities that are smart about resources and conservation. We take a proactive role in making the world a better place. We listen, clearly formulate ideas, collaborate, and always aspire to give back more than we take from the environment. Our work is rooted in the belief that buildings and landscapes should improve the ecology of place and directly reflect the mission of our clients.

TLCD Architecture:

PEOPLE: An attitude of social responsibility with genuine care for people, community and sustainability principles.

PLACE: Reinforcing the unique conditions of each location and creating a strong sense of place.

CRAFT: A process of rigorous research and analysis supportive of appropriate detail and thoughtful activity.

The Nature Conservancy: Our vision is to leave a sustainable world for future generations.

HOK: Our collaborative, multidisciplinary design process blends art and science to create high-performance, sustainable and memorable environments that provide economic value, satisfy people’s needs and help sustain the planet. Together with our clients, we are creating innovative new solutions for designing, constructing and operating the built environment in ways that allow both human and natural systems to thrive. HOK is a global leader in sustainability and demonstrates commitment through the following activities:

  • Achieving carbon neutrality in our projects and practice by 2030
  • Incorporating an integrated design process and sustainable strategies into all projects
  • Tracking key performance goals from design through operations
  • LEED credentialing for all HOK design professionals
  • Performing pro bono work in all offices
  • Implementing a global green operations plan
  • Requiring LEED Gold certification or higher for all HOK offices

Of course, vision is meaningless in isolation. It must be intrinsically connected to core values and to well-defined (or “SMART”) goals that can be translated into an action plan and accountability. A “SMART Vision” makes the effort/focus feel real and tangible to staff.

Take the example of a family vacation. A vision could be ‘an exotic location where we can balance relaxation and adventure.’ That leads to questions that need to be answered about where and how. So, you set goals: We will go to a country in Europe.  We will spend half of the time hiking in the mountains, and half on beach relaxing and doing water sports….goals that clearly show how the vision will be achieved.

If your vision for a sustainable or resilient future is connected to climate change and to safeguarding human habitation, that will support a culture of stewardship, a passion for understanding and measuring project impacts, and a shift from “traditional” practice to new partnerships and methodologies. If your vision is tied to technology and innovation, then analysis, research and development will become prominent activities which will influence culture, partnerships and the investments made in tools and resources. The vision of sustainability may differ radically from firm to firm, but a lack of clear vision leaves you nowhere.

Once a vision statement is developed, the next critical piece is developing the SMART goals, which should, at a minimum, address:

Knowledge, skills and capabilities

Internal resources needed to support achieving the vision

External relationships and collaboration

Changes to process or methodology for delivering services

Operational activities/footprint

The HOK example above articulates very clear elements that eliminate any mystery or ambiguity and really define the scope of what it means to HOK to be a leader in sustainability. The specificity of the goals which support the vision act as the pathway to move an organization from “random acts of sustainability” to a higher level of consistency and accomplishment.  They go from vision to delivery and indicate how they provide value-add to their clients.

The process of developing a vision can be done by a small group of leaders, or it can be an opportunity to engage the whole organization and create buy-in.  It can even deepen existing external relationships with selected clients and/or partners. The previous article  focused on the importance of creating guiding coalitions; developing the vision is one activity that group can engage around. Depending on the size of the organization, this can happen in a half day retreat or a series of “focus groups” in different areas at different times that all funnel back to the guiding coalition. There are many ways to accomplish the input, but the communication about this priority and the space for people to connect and discuss it will lay the foundation to build on as plans and responsibilities are developed. As changes start to happen, this foundation can be the difference between resistance and enthusiasm.

Kotter provides, “A useful rule of thumb: if you can’t communicate the vision to someone in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are not yet done with this phase of the transformation process.”

Remember, even the best vision isn’t valuable if it’s not communicated effectively and tied directly to SMART goals and an implementation plan! These will be the focus of the next articles in this series.