Establishing a Sustainability-Driven Organization

Most change efforts fail. This is a well-documented warning to all who embark on the path of organizational change.

Often what’s missing is support for an organizational culture that will anchor the change and make it a part of the new normal. A transformative change such as the transition to a sustainability-driven organization requires intentionally developing a culture that supports this new vision.

A study sponsored by the Network for Business Sustainability, asks the question “what organizational practices build and support a culture of sustainability?”  In this comprehensive review of practitioner and academic literature, researchers assessed 179 sources and identified 59 distinct practices. They were guided by the questions “what are they doing?”, “who is doing it?”, “what are they trying to accomplish?” and “how are they going about it?”. The result is a thorough collection of practices organizations can take to implement culture change to support a new ethos. Rather than a prescriptive “how to model”, the study encompasses a portfolio approach, identifying and categorizing organizational culture change practices.

The model emerging from this literature review is a useful handle for considering different approaches to culture change and ensuring that goal matches practice. This is not a prescriptive process but a reinforcing wheel of possible activities to consider in engaging the whole organization towards deepening its commitment to sustainability.

The model spans practices across four quadrants: Practices that foster commitment incorporate informal approaches to shaping organizational values and fulfill on current sustainability initiatives. Practices that clarify expectations build on fulfilling current sustainability initiatives with formal practices that establish rules and procedures. Practices that install capacity for change go beyond rules and procedures to encourage innovation, moving the organization towards sustainability. Practices that build momentum for change engage innovation and tap into informal approaches to affecting values and behaviors.

A weak link in this study is the definition used to describe a culture of sustainability. If we are looking at how to get there and how other organizations are going about it, it would be important to include in our catchment, those organizations that fulfill the goal.

The definition used in the study is: “a culture of sustainability is one in which organizational members hold shared assumptions and beliefs about the importance of balancing economic efficiency and social equity and environmental accountability”. This seems vague and hard to measure.

By the study’s own model, that is only a part of the picture. Using the model, a culture of sustainability is one that holds shared values, adopts clear policies, fulfills on existing commitments and is actively adopting innovative new processes to balance economic efficiency, social equity and environmental accountability.

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