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The Geometry of Organizational Environmentalism

350pxsustainable_development_svgIt's been an interesting education recently.  In anticipation of my next project, I've been ramping up on "green" corporate issues and "sustainability."  For a systems thinker, seeing how social, environmental and economic facets interact is fascinating stuff to say the least.  Whether or not one believes in global warming or climate change, this simply points to being a good planetary steward of the resources we have to ensure they will be around for multiple generations.

What also intrigues me about many organizations' approach to being green is the philosophy of executives and managers.  In organizations, executives create strategies which they expect their underlings to execute.  Strategies generally create a mix of projects and operational process tactics.  Instead of INTEGRATING green sustainable philosophies INTO these projects and processes, most executives keep them separate, running in parallel.  OK, for those of you who endured high school geometry, what is the number one rule of parallel lines?

(No peeking.)


We've seen this "parallel lines" principle played out organizationally numerous times.  When IT was first created in the early computer days, they were "those computer people" with whom nobody could communicate.  When project management was all the rage, executives created project offices to keep the project managers out of everybody's way.  When Six Sigma and Lean were the flavor du jour, these same executives kept "business running as usual" while those process improvement people earned their blackbelts.

So now we have environmentalism and sustainability facing our organizations.  And executives are keeping these initiatives at arm's length of the other strategic activities.

Unless organizations (and the executives who run them) learn that these kinds of critical iniatives must be A PART OF of the rest of the organization instead of separate from it, they will continue to suffer.  And when these executives don't see the kind of ROI results they expect, they'll blame the initiative.  It becomes a vicious cycle of failure... all because our corporate leaders need remedial geometry.


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Mike Wagner

"...learn that these kinds of critical initiatives must be A PART OF of the rest of the organization"

Super reflection Tim.

Why does this happen?

Is it because these initiatives would add complexity if connected to the rest of the organization in a meaningful way?

I don't know. I just wonder what you think causes this learning disability.

Keep creating...today's piece of the masterpiece,

Timothy Johnson

Hi Mike - great commentary (as always). I think this is a by-product of the "way business has always been done." Think of all of the silos created over the decades in our organizations. Leadership has consistently compartmentalized all elements of business (how we got functional org structures). While business is migrating to flatter and more integrated models, we still see that residual mindset whenever something new is introduced into the organization. It's almost a like a safety defense mechanism.

What do you think? Do you see this same mindset on brand ownership?

Mike Wagner

Thanks for the follow up question Tim.

Client success around brand ownership results when the organization chooses to focus outward toward the customer.

When the focus is on creating a great performance brand resulting in an exceptional customer experience we see compartmentalization and org structure begin to morph as everyone is more concerned with customers than with their department.

For a brand to grow it must "return to its first love" --- THE customer and their experience with the company's products and services.

My mind is racing....loving the conversation,

Timothy Johnson

Great follow-up Mike. So it really boils down to the success of any of the initiatives I mentioned in the original post: FOCUS.

If the executives and leadership of the organization are focused on an isssue (be it branding, environmental sustainability, project management, or Six Sigma), then the strategy and resources of the organization will follow.

Now comes a trickier question... what if the focus is divided? Worse yet, what if the focus is divided among two or more issues which could be deemed mutually exclusive?

In your case, what if the company is undergoing major cost-cutting issues (a reality in today's market) but they desperately need to reinvest in their brand? Who wins, the investment or the retrenchment?

Similarly, on environmental issues, we've seen people like Al Gore and the other liberals talk a good game, but I've yet to see them truly embrace ALL THREE of the circles listed in the post above.

Which brings us back to the idea of integration and breaking down silos.

franke james

Lots of good points Timothy on the importance of integrating sustainable initiatives rather than running them parallel.

You've also got my curiosity -- what is your next green project? I guess we'll have to wait and read about it here. Good for you! We need more champions like you who can combine smart systems thinking with sustainable design.


You uses the correct phrasing here "a part" not APART. We have Sick Sigma (intentional) at my current employer. Instead of adding real strategic value, these individuals are set apart, somehow better than the rest. Their ideas valued in a way that gives them extra credibility and there lies the crux. You can't set apart the actions from the results. It is actions and service that will help you succeed in keeping clients and building a brand. Your actions are what people see and remember. Words are hollow.

Timothy Johnson

Franke - thanks for the kind words. I'll fill you in as the project evolves.

Crysta - thanks for the great chuckle: SICK SIGMA. Love it! And yes, "a part" does not equal "apart" (but don't tell the executives that).

Mike Wagner

Timothy, good follow up - "what if the focus is divided?"

In most cases it won't be "if" but "when" the focus is divided.

To the term "focus" I would add "urgent". Leadership is doing the necessary triage of priorities.

The failure to integrate priorities in some meaningful way or the willingness to allow initiatives to run in parallel is a form of deflection.

At my age I don't mind telling leaders they are dodging their responsibility as leaders. Well...maybe I mind some, but not as much as when I was 35.

Keep creating...projects worth completing,

Timothy Johnson

Great point, Mike. The ability to prioritize eludes many of our organizational leaders today. Just because we CAN do it all, doesn't mean we SHOULD do it all.

Mark McClure / Career Coaching


You know, when working in the trenches I had some admiration for how these various strategic initiatives would be championed by execs. Momentum would build, stuff starts getting done - then wham! Churn time - original execs leave, get fired, promoted or bored (well, maybe! Just guessing) and the structure begins to wobble.

So along comes another trend wave with another exec riding atop...

Sound familiar?

Yes, I've seen some success stories but also a mess of could-have-beens too.

And who's to blame?
Wrong word - I guess the problem in many corps may well be that few outside of highly engaged senior execs (think serious bonus/stock) is insane enough to own the solutions/problems arising from these new approaches, lock, stock and barrel.

If they (and that means all employees with a pulse) did, my goodness, think of what could happen. You'd have an interesting assignment if you ever stopped by in one of those places! ;-)

Right, I need to re-read my copies of Maverick and The Goal.

Thanks for a greatly stimulating post.

Timothy Johnson

What an engaging comment, Mark! (And I thought I was the only person on the planet who enjoyed reading and rereading Maverick.) Yes, change has to occur at all levels, but I think you nailed it. The leadership of the change needs to remain consistent and (as Mike put it) focused.

Interesting assignments are always great, and I've been fortunate enough to find a couple of them in my career.

Thanks for stopping in.

Chris Brown

I love your diagram and your analysis. Hope that things change soom and everyone becomes more involved in sustainability in the social, economic and environmental areas, so it's not just a fad or a program...
Keep posting!

Timothy Johnson

I can't take credit for the diagram (but - bad professor - forgot to cite my source) ... it should be easily findable doing a google image search on sustainability (as well as the terms in the diagram).

Your broader point is well taken.... I too hope that the lower gas prices don't lull people back into the way they've always done things. If Detroit wants to stay viable, they're going to have to go green.

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