Becoming agents of change in the workplace

If we’re to succeed in bringing about the degree of change that’s needed, then business needs leaders who can manage change effectively to ensure buy-in across the whole company and, where possible, the sector they operate in. So, how can individuals change their organisations in response to social and environmental demands.

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Organisational and institutional change has become known as industrial ecology - the idea that our industrial and business systems could start to mimic natural ecosystems, insomuch as they are circular, regenerative and, ultimately, self-regulating. For example, natural systems have evolved to continuously recycle and repurpose their waste; learn how to wire that into our industrial systems and we will achieve a profound, positive impact on resource efficiency. Of course, natural systems are complex, with strong inter-relationships. To be effective, this industrial ecology approach requires businesses to work together with other partners; optimising resource flows cannot be achieved in isolation.

Organisations must think of themselves as part of a more holistic system.

Industrial ecology has its basis in natural systems, regenerative and balanced

Industrial ecology has its basis in natural systems, regenerative and balanced

Successful organisations which have embraced this new way of thinking, have done so by examining the life cycle impact of their products or services. They’ve also been very open to learning with and from others, thereby building trusted, beneficial relationships. For instance, such thinking can throw up opportunities, such as one organisation’s waste actually becoming productive input for another’s processes.

Clearly, such ideas need considerable, creative thought; aligned with openness to learning among various partners. Solutions require champions - people like you, perhaps - to conceive of new ways of partnering others; new perspectives on their supply chain; new ways to offer a service in place of a product (I supported a creative business that shifted from producing art prints for sale to offering a leasing and re-use scheme).

For these things to happen, it helps if businesses are closely located to one another, when they actively create learning opportunities, and when they’re engaging intermediaries to help them build productive connections. Crucially, it needs to be recognised that this will only work if business breaks from the traditional, linear supply chain of take, make, use, and waste.

So, here’s the thing, change makers: you need to look outside of your industry sector and the supply chains you’re currently involved with. To succeed you need to be able to make connections with people ‘thinking outside the box’, embracing radical ideas, who are going to be effective at overcoming the barriers to regenerative solutions.

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It’s important to realise that making a system-level change means that not every organisation will benefit or do so in the same way. There might be a real environmental win for one business, while another might benefit economically. This requires CEOs to be open to optimising wider benefits beyond their own organisation, and accepting that these may not happen immediately.

At a time when our politicians are turning their backs on more collaborative, outward approaches, it is vital that our business leaders commit to engaging others. It’s well-known that people love to seek and find meaning at work: we all want to work at a place where we matter and can make a difference. Sustainability really engages employees, particularly the new generations joining the workforce.

If you’re going to bring about change, to introduce more sustainable and ethical practices into your organisation, you need to be mindful of the structures, political networks and cultures that have evolved. While we may think the change is so compelling and exciting that everyone will want to get on board; it is vital to remove or redirect those elements that aren’t supportive. You don’t need to be operating at the top of your organisation, in a position of power; you do need to know the organisation very well - how it works and what matters to it.

In addition, effective change agents need to:

  • have an established track record of making good decisions;

  • connect their ideas to business strategy;

  • know when to bring ideas forward and know when to wait;

  • break things into manageable chunks;

  • demonstrate a consistent commitment to the business;

  • be willing to challenge the CEO, respectfully, and be challenged themselves;

  • harness their passion, while keeping their emotions in check; and

  • keep sustainability from being perceived as a pet project.

Bertels, A., Schulschenk, J., Ferry, A., Otto-Mentz, V. and Speck, E. (2016) “Being an Effective Change Agent: a Guide”. Embedding Project. www.embeddingproject.org

Such people can be incredibly powerful agents for change, able to find ways of getting others to buy into their sustainability idea and work with them to bring it alive. The time is now, so perhaps this is your chance, your role - go out and grab it!

Emmet, an ordinary, rilles-following, risk averse, perfectly normal LEGO mini-figure, who is mistakenly identified as the most extraordinary Master-Builder: a real agent of change!

Emmet, an ordinary, rilles-following, risk averse, perfectly normal LEGO mini-figure, who is mistakenly identified as the most extraordinary Master-Builder: a real agent of change!