Getting Unstuck: How to Promote More Sustainable Practices in Our Organizations

author: Rebecca Henderson, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: March 10, 2012,   recorded: September 2008,   views: 3041

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All that’s required to achieve sustainability, says Rebecca Henderson, is to clean up your current operations and/or rethink the business. “That’s easy,” she says -- with a smile. Henderson has spent much of her career trying to help firms embrace and survive such transformations. She and her colleagues have analyzed why businesses get stuck in their ways, and how they can break free to act boldly around the challenge and opportunity of sustainability.

Overload proves the single greatest obstacle for many organizations, Henderson says. Too many projects and too little time result in “toxic effects, including making it difficult to undertake creative thinking and purposeful redirection” that responding to sustainability requires. Single-minded focus on short term financials can put unbearable pressure on individuals, who then can’t focus successfully, leading to failures in their projects. In an ugly loop, employees receive blame for poor performance, leading to greater pressure, and more degradation. Henderson sees a “fundamental tradeoff between working smarter and working harder.”

There’s no magic bullet for getting unstuck, and warns Henderson, whatever you do, don’t rely on vision models or simple blueprints for change. Rather, businesses must undergo a painful process of behavior change, “building muscle memory.” Henderson offers some tips for organizations to break out of ruts successfully. CEOs need to get a real fix on capacity (so they don’t throw one initiative after another at employees), and track performance historically. They must understand that significant change will be costly, and likely mean cutting out other projects – so perhaps “pick low-hanging fruit,” biting off “little chunks, addressing areas that make a big difference.” Managers must clearly state strategy and values, then live by them, and respond to problems as systems dynamics issues -- “don’t beat up employees.”

Henderson acknowledges these strategies are “easy to put on a slide, but hard to do.” Yet she feels that if organizations develop the ability to have real conversations, put aside an exclusive focus on the current quarter in favor of the long-term health of the company, a focus on sustainability “gives us the emotional power and moral juice to do these things.”

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