In the decade or so that I have been involved in the sustainability movement, I have seen it evolve around a lot of the “whats” (a term I first learned from my dear friend Holly Harlan, founder of E4S) – buildings, energy efficiency, transportation, renewable energy, food— all of which are means to create sustainability. What isn’t discussed as much is the “how” of creating sustainable outcomes. The “what” isn’t really as important as the “how” is it? How do we create the person, relationship, community, company, or world that we desire? Well, the answer really is by shaping the system or organization in a way that achieves our desired results.

My old boss, Mayor Frank Jackson of the City of Cleveland, once said – “the best plan is the one that you do.” By this statement, he meant that an idea or a plan isn’t much unless it is put into practice and achieved. It was this realization during my own journey that led me to get a Master’s degree in Positive Organizational Development from the Weatherhead School of Management at CWRU. It doesn’t matter if you have a good idea if no one implements it.  I came to this conclusion after beating my head against the wall due to several failed attempts to implement sustainability initiatives. I finally was successful by focusing on initiatives that I was empowered to implement on my own or could convince the person with authority to implement. I realized from this experience that I needed to become a better salesman and leader in helping individuals and organizations recognize their own desired outcomes while simultaneously educating them that the sustainable outcome is the desired outcome.

My experiences reinforce the importance of organizational development as a means of achieving sustainable results. By creating systems where individuals are empowered to implement their ideas and contribute to a common vision, we will see an acceleration of sustainability progress. One example can be seen in an effort to reshape the Cleveland community with Sustainable Cleveland 2019 (SC2019). Rather than starting with a set of goals or a plan, SC2019 began with a positive vision of the future, asking stakeholders to dream, design and deploy that vision. SC2019 has created a space for many initiatives to succeed or fail on their own validity instead of a space that is pre-programmed and pre-determined with leaders already clearly defined. The experiment is all-inclusive, with a broad group of stakeholders that have the ability to both envision and implement desired outcomes.  Bike Cleveland, Tunnel Vision Hoops and Grow Ohio are all examples of stakeholder efforts. Cleveland City Hall and the corporate community have made incredible progress around a broad spectrum of mutually complimentary initiatives.  SC2019’s out of the box approach has the capacity of achieving extraordinary results.

I am happy to see an increased awareness of the importance of organizational development as a means of achieving sustainability. Articles like the one published in Environmental Leader and other ideas being discussed amongst sustainability thought leaders within both the consulting and business communities are raising this important point. Without adopting organizational development approaches, sustainability will not move beyond the sustainability stars like the late Ray Anderson of Interface Carpet. In a recent article in GreenBiz, Joel Makower asked, why are there not more Ray Andersons? My answer is that there will only be more Rays when we engage and empower people to be the CEO in whatever they are able to influence in order to shape a more sustainable world.

–Andrew Watterson

Related articles:

Two Reasons Why Your CSR Program Should Engage Employees, by Melanie Colburn

Creating Positive Change Through Appreciative Inquiry, by Andrew Watterson

How Companies Structure Sustainability for Success, by Barb Brown