The late Ray Anderson, Founder & CEO of one of the world’s largest makers of carpets, Interface, said he used to be a typical industrialist – a ‘plunderer of the Earth’. In 1994 he was asked by a staff member to prepare a presentation on sustainability, and he went away and read Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce as research. He described it as an epiphany, a “spear to the chest” awakening to the urgent need to stop being part of the problem and instead set a new course toward sustainability for Interface.
He enlisted his global team with the challenge of making Interface a “restorative enterprise” – a business that returns more than it takes. Interface decided to take from the earth only what the earth could rapidly renew. Anderson took a risk, but it paid off – Interface is still the world’s largest maker of commercial carpeting, with factories in 34 countries, annual sales well over $1 billion, and rated by Fortune magazine as one of the best 100 US companies to work for. Thirteen years on from the moment Ray decided to fundamentally change his company, Interface has reduced the energy used to manufacture carpet by 43%, reduced its greenhouse gas emissions 44% in absolute terms (94% when factoring in offsets) and grown net sales by 27%.
We can all be Ray Andersons. We can help the organisations we work in and the communities we live in go through change management processes to respond to climate change. But we’re the last generation with the ability – in terms of the timeframe – to do this. So let’s go create and manage some change! In doing so, what lessons can we learn from the corporate change management sector?
Change management is always hard! What we see in the debate about the price on carbon is now the enormous, overwhelming resistance to change present in the Australian community and in some elements of the business community. In other countries like Europe and most of the UK, there’s a lot less resistance to acting on climate change, because there it’s largely not a partisan issue. Obviously when you have influential players actively stirring up opposition to change and spreading misinformation about it, change management gets a big spanner in the works.
Here are six tips for change management, with analogies drawn from the current carbon price debate.
1. Understand the difference between a Start and a Beginning
William Bridges writes that beginnings are psychological phenomena, not simply practical ones. Starts involve new situations. Beginnings involve new understandings, new values, new attitudes and new identities. While starts can be carefully designed, like an object, beginnings must be carefully nurtured, like a plant. It’s important to understand that in every change process, people will experience starts and beginnings at different times.
When it comes to climate change, there are many people who’ve already understood and processed what’s happening, have gone through grief for what’s being lost, and are getting on with changing their companies, their lives and their behaviour in order to help tackle the problem and adapt to the change we’ve already locked in. These people are looking ahead at what the economy of the future will look like. Others – companies and individuals – are still stuck in denial. We need to keep in mind the difference between a start and a beginning.
2. The Change must be Purpose-Driven
Change must be clearly driven by a purpose that everyone can understand. This is one of the challenges we’re facing in the climate debate. Australia has lost a sense of the urgency of the problem, and the need to act on climate change. The previous strong support for action on climate change has been replaced with confusion and fear in the face of the scare campaign from Tony Abbott about increases in the cost of living, and the success of climate deniers in seeding doubt about the science. The frame has moved from responsibility and stewardship (need to act) to trust in Government (broken promises) and protection from cost of living price rises.
Tony Abbott knows that when the conversation is about climate change, he loses. This is why he didn’t use the words ‘climate change’ once in his televised address to the nation on the carbon price.
While the conversation is around the cost of living impacts, rather than the reason for acting in the first place – climate change and the damage it’s causing – we can’t have an effective process of change. Change processes can be driven by many reasons – make sure there’s a strong purpose behind it all that we don’t lose sight of.
3. Paint a Vision of Life After the Change
This has traditionally been a hard one for the climate change movement. Many people have backgrounds in protest-style environmentalism where we were good at saying what we’re against, but not so good at articulating what kind of new systems we’ll need in a post-climate changed world.
Author Bill McKibben writes: “We lack the vocabulary and the metaphors we need for life on a different scale. We’re so used to growth that we can’t imagine alternatives; at best we embrace the squishy ‘sustainable’ with its implied claim that we can keep on going as before.”
He suggests our new vocabulary must include words like durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, robust, resilient. As a movement, we’ve started to talk about what a new kind of economy might look like: one based on clean energy and creativity, innovation and local solutions, collaborative consumption, re-use and a more responsible mindset. Both McKibben’s book Eaarth and Paul Gilding’s book The Great Disruption are important contributions to painting the vision in an honest and compelling way.
4. Make Sure Everyone has a Part to Play
Nothing guarantees opposition to change more than when you paint a picture of what the change will look like and people can’t see themselves in it. People must see their role in the outcome – where they’ll sit in the organisation chart after the restructure. What their job will look like under a carbon price. What their lives will be like. Until people know their parts in the situation after the change, their fears and imaginations can lead them far from the reality they will be actually facing.
People also need to know their part in the transition – what role will they need to play in getting from A to B. For people to have meaningful ownership over the outcome of a change, they need to be given a role to play in the change process itself.
5. Develop strategic capacity
You need a plan to create change, but we all know that even the best-laid plans go awry. For example, in AYCC in the early years we weren’t really into planning – in politics things change very rapidly. But we did place a big emphasis on training and supporting our volunteers, knowing that whatever changes happened, they would be the people responding to them.
I’ve written before about a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review talking about how to evaluate advocacy campaigns. It’s very hard, because we invest in many things – developing leadership, community education, protests, civil disobedience, communications strategies, polling, research and reports, lobbying – and we’ll never really be able to point to any single factor that gets us a campaign win. It’s impossible to know before you start what will be the thing that creates the change; especially when it comes to an issue as complex and multi-faceted and requiring action from so many stakeholders as climate change.
To a large extent, effectiveness and influence in political campaigning is determined by how nimbly and creatively an organization can react to unanticipated challenges or opportunities. This is strategic capacity.
6. Distinguish the Learning zone from the Danger Zone
People and organisations generally operate in their comfort zone. Sometimes they move into a learning zone, and other times the danger zone, where everything is too overwhelming and stressful to make any meaningful learning worthwhile or any change long-term.
In the first few years of AYCC’s life, we didn’t have any tried and tested ways of doing things, any usual practice or standard operating procedures. This meant we were on a learning curve, and it was steep. As AYCC has evolved, it created norms, systems and standard ways of doing things.
The people you’re working with will have different reactions to change. Your organisation might be mostly working in the learning zone, but for some people it might be their danger zone. The aim is to get everyone in the learning zone: take people out of the comfort zone and bring people back from the danger zone.
To be able to really understand whether people, organisations or society are operating in the comfort zone, learning zone or danger zone in regard to the change you’re trying to create, you need a great deal of empathy.
Empathy is the key to successfully managing change, and it means that we don’t dismiss people’s fears and laugh at them. Instead, we name them, face them head on, acknowledge the loss, talk about the gain, and be honest with people that yes, there will be difficulties but that doesn’t mean the change isn’t necessary.
This is an edited extract of a speech I gave at the Change Management Institute conference dinner.