Putting the Management back in Change

In many ways, LEED has been the tail wagging the dog.
A tool originally intended to define green building metrics – repurposed as a ‘design’ tool.
An ‘end of pipe’ measuring stick relied on to drive change in professional practice and collaboration.

That can’t end well.

Because sustainability was initially introduced to the industry through LEED and project implementation, it has taken many of us a decade to realize that sustainability must start with the organization, and not the project.

Evidence of this can be seen in many company’s portfolios, where the (relatively) small number of LEED certified projects seem to have no influence over the larger percentage of projects not meeting the same targets. Only when sustainability is institutionalized throughout a company will all of its projects be “green”.

With LEED, the first place of engagement was the “front lines”, on project teams, without a cultural shift at the top levels of organizations. Because the project teams were ‘temporary’, situationally-defined groups, the substantive changes needed to institutionalize sustainable mindsets and cultures could not be addressed effectively. Not surprisingly, the outcome of this change thrust upon transient project teams was a lot of resistance, the perception of LEED being inextricably associated with stress, anxiety and cost, and the need (by LEED consultants) to provide an inordinate amount of ‘hand-holding’ (often beyond the scope of what they were being paid to do).

Successful implementation of LEED happens only as a result of long-lasting communities of professionals united by a common culture, structure and systems.

Once your company understands that sustainability is more than having some LEED projects in your portfolio, and success of a project is inseparable from high performing, healthy building, you know that internal shifts need to be intentional and change must be deliberately planned and managed. (Those whose leadership is divided, who think everything is ‘ok’ as it is, are losing profit and competitive advantage without knowing it.)

Deliberate change achieves specific goals (or conversely, if you want to achieve specific goals, they will likely require deliberate change!)

In the corporate business world of change management models, two dominant thinkers are Kurt Lewin and John Kotter. The gist of Lewin’s model is that in order for things to change, the initial status quo must be broken, a transition must occur and then a new status quo must be established. Kotter uses an 8 step model, breaking down different aspects of successful transformation. Here, I will summarize Kotter’s concept in the context of what I’ve seen work in this industry. In subsequent articles, I will dig more deeply into each step, with examples from our work with organizations.

John P. Kotter’s 8 Steps to Organizational Transformation
(Kotter’s steps in bold, followed by my comments on each):

A critical aspect of getting ‘buy-in’ is to frame the desired change with a credible sense of urgency. There are so many competing priorities and issues, anything that isn’t perceived as urgent will fall below the radar. There are 5 steps to doing this, from doing an assessment of current conditions to competitive analysis, which will be detailed in the next article.

Don Quixote tilted at windmills; effective advocates build coalitions and create a base of champions who represent different company functions. These people help inform the case for urgency as well as contribute to a process of broader engagement which can become viral. There are specific communication skills and strategies for creating coalitions that achieve results; it’s not enough just to include those who are already in “the choir”.

Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” A powerful vision inspires, excites and engages people. For a vision to help enact change, it also needs to infer exciting opportunities and be connected to specific actions that can be taken. Vision needs to be married directly with “SMART” goals and an implementation plan that shows employees what will be achieved over time, how, and what metrics will be used to track success.

Deliberate and comprehensive communication strategies are critical to expanding buy-in, clarifying confusion and overcoming the discomfort that will certainly be present as people are generally afraid of change and perceived risk. It is also a way of demonstrating commitment of leadership and promoting behavior/culture change throughout the organization.

Empowering others requires two main actions: creating a system and structure of accountability that makes people feel that they ‘own’ the change and are part of making it happen; and removing the barriers that would inhibit change/compromise reaching goals.

Nothing creates momentum like success. The plan must include short term successes in the areas that matter most to the company overall. Visible performance improvements, enhanced client relationships, internal gains – must all be acknowledged and individuals and teams rewarded for their success.

Credibility is key. Helping shift the perceptions of “green” from the fringe to core business issues means leveraging real successes into political capital and pathways to change systems, processes and behaviors so that they align with long-term goals.

Last but not least, the actual systems, tools, resources, processes and methodologies that are the daily operations of a company need to be aligned with the new culture. Although this is very operational, there can’t be enough said about intentional culture change which is the thread running through all of the above.

In general, both Lewin and Kotter describe intentional processes that start by identifying the need for change and clearly communicating why the change is important; continue by a strategic and methodical engagement of stakeholders as part of the change effort; and then focus on fully integrating changes into the systems, processes and monitoring of the organization. Both models address culture as well as procedure and recognize that change must be led, but is not only top down.

If you don’t think being a green firm means organizational change, than you should just give it up now; you will never really be successful and your competitors will leave you in the dust.
If you think the % of LEED projects in your portfolio is a true and complete measure of how green your firm is, you are missing the point.
And if you think green building is not important (or is a dirty word, as I’ve been told…) than you are letting your fears and ignorance compromise your long term success.

It is critical to differentiate between individual project successes and institutional transformation. Failure to understand the over-arching systems issues may lead to fixing specific problems without correcting the thinking that produced the problems in the first place!

Management consultants come and go, and from what I’ve heard, over-reliance on them can leave cynicism and no lasting change. As with anything, consultants have their place, but the real measure of effectiveness and commitment is to see how these efforts are internalized as part of the company’s DNA. Anyone who has been successful at institutionalizing sustainability in their firm will tell you that it requires real change, culturally and otherwise. The question is, how effectively are you going to take on this challenge? Being informed and intentional can make the difference between a long, bumpy process that results in “random acts of sustainability” and a more streamlined process with measurable results.