Eight ways to get cross-departmental buy-in for sustainability

Eight ways to get cross-departmental buy-in for sustainability

Sustainability education can be a driver for strategy integration, says Daniel Cade

Question: Your organisation has a leader that is an advocate of sustainability, and an intelligent and passionate sustainability manager that is on the cusp of rolling out a great new sustainability strategy. The challenge you now face is cross-departmental buy-in. Where do you start?

Well, ideally you would have started to address this challenge before this point. If there is any way at all to avoid it, an individual – or department come to that – should never embark on a sustainability journey alone. 

Why? Simply because any meaningful strategy must address the impact, and potential impacts, of the whole organisation. Implying two things: 1) Others’ input is needed to understand the impacts, and 2) Others’ commitment and support is needed to address those impacts. 

But don’t worry, it’s not too late! Regardless of when you began to seek cross-departmental buy-in for the integration of your sustainability strategy, one element is key to its eventual success. Education.

Understanding sustainability is one of the biggest obstacles to successful integration. Ensuring that staff understand the topic, within the specific context of the organisation, is critical to ensuring involvement from all relevant departments and hierarchical levels. 

Sustainability education should come in at many steps along an organisation’s sustainability journey and should be part of a general sustainability communication plan. Organisations must educate staff and other stakeholders on sustainability if they are to achieve meaningful business-wide integration.

In my experience, at least three elements should be in place to educate and prepare staff for the roll-out of a sustainability strategy:

1.) A series of internal announcements, talks, or discussions, have been communicated regarding the organisation’s commitment to sustainability, at various stages throughout the strategy development process;

2.) An internal working group, with representatives from all relevant departments, was formed as part of the strategy development process, and, consequently, some key staff have already been learning on-the-job; and 

3.) When the implementation plan is rolled out, the organisation’s sustainability strategy includes department- or role-specific performance related goals, and relevant teams or individuals receive specific training.

Popularity of sustainability is at an all-time high, evidenced partly by usage of the word itself (see Google Books Ngram Viewer screenshot below). 

I often find, however, that an understanding of sustainability at the macro or societal level does not translate to understanding it on a micro-level – within the context of sport, sport organisations, and individual roles. How do we overcome this? How do we bring the topic home, so to speak? 

Eight top exercise tips

I have a playbook that I would turn to based on my previous experiences. But I thought it would be useful to hear from others coming at this from different angles of expertise. So, here are some exercises that some friends would use to increase understanding and eventual buy-in of a sustainability strategy:

1. The power of the example (Provided by Mikkel Minor, CSR responsible for LB Forsikring / LB Foreningen)

The exercise: Find examples of the type of action you want more of in your organisation and showcase them. Chances are you already have people and projects that are part of the change you want to see more of.

Why it works: Giving a platform for colleagues does not only shine a light on them – it hopefully also inspires others and gives them an idea of what is needed. Often it is more understandable and inspiring to see how it can be done than listening to strategic buzzwords on a slideshow.

2. This time it’s personal (Provided by Alison Cain, deputy dean of the School of Life and Medical Sciences at University of Hertfordshire)

The exercise: Ask staff to identify one thing related to sustainability that would be of benefit to them and one thing they would find challenging in implementing a more sustainable approach. Use this as the starting point for conversations between groups of colleagues around the wider benefits and ways of overcoming the challenges.

Why it works: Individuals can often find it easier to engage with a topic on a more authentic level if they can personalise it and if they can reflect openly on challenges. Peer learning is a powerful mechanism for identifying commonalities (e.g. “I hadn’t thought of that benefit”) and for finding ways to address challenges and change perceptions.

3. Your impact (Provided by Arne Menn, head of the Sustainability Office at the University of Basel) 

The exercise: As part of a kick-off meeting with a department, discuss and list the positive economic, social or environmental impacts the team is already making. Then consider, together, what further steps could be taken to address these impacts.

Why it works: Often, employees of departments, such as accounting or controlling, who have not yet been confronted with sustainability impacts are not able to grasp the importance of their work in addressing relevant issues. The approach helps to show them the enormous positive impact that their work has on the organisation’s sustainability performance, now and in the future. Internal communication can also give more visibility to departments that often operate more in the background. This appreciation often leads to further motivation.

4. Use the blueprint for the planet to map assets (Provided by David Connor, founder at 2030hub)

The exercise: Part 1) Use the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help facilitate the team in wildly exploring the toughest social or environmental challenges in any way connected to the organisation. Part 2) Separately ask them to list all of the organisation’s available assets using the ‘Six Capitals’ model. Part 3) Use the lists from parts 1 and 2 to map sustainability impact and commercial opportunity. Part 4) If you are being brave – then invite other stakeholders into the process and identify complementary assets and challenges for collaboration.

Why it works: The SDGs can be a fantastic lens and set of accessible communications materials to engage both human hearts and commercial minds whilst encouraging collaboration and a laser-like focus on what is needed most, away from more superficial approaches. This asset mapping approach blends language and processes that appeal to both revenue and impact motivated employees.

5. The Empathy Map – Understanding different points of view (Provided by Julien Goy, deputy to the director at Université de Genève)

The exercise: In a meeting with your staff, identify a stakeholder. It can be a client, a supplier, a member of the local community, etc. On a big panel (flipchart, whiteboard, etc.) draw a map. Ask the group to describe the experience of this person from his/her point of view (what he/she sees, thinks, etc.) related to your organisation and sustainability. You can even ask them to stick various post-its in the relevant zones. The exercise should last fifteen minutes. Next ask the group the question: what does “sustainability” mean to this stakeholder? How can it influence our own understanding of sustainability? 

Why it works: It is a simple approach, but that can quickly enable your staff to focus on a particular stakeholder, and most importantly in an empathetic way. It is central that your understanding of sustainability considers various perspectives. This method will help you and your staff develop a more encompassing definition of sustainability, and possibly identify blind spots.

6. Map out the Journey (Provide by Pierluigi Zaccheo, founder at MyStadium)

The exercise: Once the key tasks have been identified for the sustainability working group it makes sense to map out the journey in the form of a roadmap, which includes necessary details such as timelines, roles and responsibilities, and budget available.

Why it works: Simply put, if you don’t know where you are going, you’re never going to get there. It is important not to rush into things once the main tasks have been identified. Among other things it risks wasting valuable resources, demotivating those involved, and missing out key parts of the process.

7. Use strategic iteration (Provided by Eric Amstein, communications and marketing expert)

The exercise: Acknowledge first that a strategy is nothing more than a prototype. Then ensure that the creating and implementing your strategy becomes a continuous activity involving everyone in your organisation. Start with smaller decisions, both for strategy and implementation. Focus attentions and efforts on what you are observing as a result of the implementation, and use the observation as the basis for the next strategy creation process. Each refined prototype will bring you closer to acting sustainably. Just make sure you never stop prototyping.

Why it works: Organisations act in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). To navigate in this environment, mid- to long-term strategic plans may seem too rigid. Strategic iteration ensures that rapid adaptation to ever-changing internal and external circumstances becomes a skill that is honed. An organisation opting to strategise iteratively also decides to become a lifelong learner. In this way it gains mastery for the implementation of its sustainability strategy.

8. Prepare for emotional reactions to change (Provided by Sylvia Beasley-Suffolk, certified professional coach, Owner of Shine True)

The exercise: As part of the implementation plan roll out, actively build in time and space for employees to voice their emotions, so that they can effectively cycle through them and ultimately progress to integration. 

Why it works: According to Kübler-Ross’s change curve, humans naturally cycle through several stages in response to any change (although not necessarily linearly). Bearing in mind that reactions like denial, frustration and depression are a normal part of the change process, it is often helpful to address this in a structured way.

Bonus tip (Provided by Des Tomlinson, intercultural programme coordinator at the Football Association of Ireland)

The exercise: I am a fan of the Transtheoretical Model of Change (TTM). TTM addresses the behaviour-intention gap by gradually moving people from indifference or ignorance towards increased readiness and finally to action in a series of descriptive and prescriptive stages of change (Mundorf N, Redding CA, Paiva AL 2018).

Why it works: Longitudinal studies have found that people move through a series of five stages when modifying behaviour on their own or with the help of formal interventions. TTM improves the likelihood of behaviour changes by tailoring or targeting interventions to everyone’s stage of change. 

Daniel Cade is the founder of Responsible Sport

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