One thing we have found over many years of sustainability work is that there must be a balance between planning and action. Too much of either one will kill a sustainability program. 

When businesses are just getting started, they are often eager to dig right in. They want to have an impact and show that sustainability can add value. In some cases, they will take on whatever project is most interesting to the committee, or maybe the project that is most interesting to the CEO or other executive sponsor. As one of our clients put it, “We just get in the car and drive!” We see this in companies that are more decentralized, more horizontal in structure and/or those that have a less process-oriented culture.

On the flip side, sometimes committees can get mired in planning and research. They want to make sure they are taking the right step, and feel like they have to vet everything in great detail before starting anything. A bit of decision paralysis can set in. This is often the case with companies where the culture is more analytical or in ones that are more hierarchical and need many layers of approval to take action. It can also happen in committees that are too large or where leadership is lacking.

Irrespective of culture, the most effective approach to building a successful sustainability program is to start with a mix of planning and action. There must be at least foundational education and planning as the sustainability team or manager gets up to speed. And, early on, sustainability teams should also identify some projects that will have an impact and be well received. 

We call these early stage projects “quick wins.” These are projects that have a low or no cost initial investment, have a quick payback, and/or are visible or engaging to employees. We encourage clients to engage in identifying 1-2 quick wins while they plan their longer-term strategy (which can often take a few months).

There are several ways to identify a list of potential quick wins, but a little bit of internet research can go a long way. Check out other companies in your industry. Look at their sustainability sites or the corporate responsibility pages on their website.  They often give lists of the projects they have undertaken. You will find many lists of “greening the office” by searching the quoted term. Our favorite, and one of the most effective ways of gathering ideas, is to poll employees, including your sustainability committee members. Chances are there is pent-up demand in the form of actions they have been hoping to see your organization to take for years. All these are great sources that will generate at least 10-15 good ideas.

Once you have a list of initial, you will need to research them and prioritize them a bit. Your initial research should be external via the web. Educate yourself on what the project will entail, how much it might cost, what the benefits are, and what some of the challenges might be. After that, your next round of research involves talking with people in your organization. Start with those who have knowledge or work in the area your project involves and those from whom you need help.  Go in with an open mind, seeking feedback and input. You can bring this information back to your sustainability committee to help you prioritize and select the top 1-2 projects.

The benefits of taking on 1-2 quick win projects early on are that you:

  • Learn how to navigate successful implementation of a sustainability project with minimal risk
  • Establish a sense of pride and engagement on the part of sustainability committee members
  • Spark interest and engagement among employees
  • Gain credibility with the management team
  • Generate content that you can communicate to stakeholders to show that you are taking action 

To best use quick win projects to help you get traction, make sure you record as much information about them as you can. Capture all costs, man-hours, and the resulting social/environmental impacts (such as reduction in paper use or energy, for example). You should report this information should to your management team and to employees. And, when you have completed your initial sustainability plan, you can use your quick wins success story as a springboard for getting approvals for new projects. 

Looking for an easy way to find quick win projects? The Sustrana Sustainability Strategy Navigator just launched its newest tool, the Project Selector. Each quick win project page comes with an in-depth description of the project benefits, a case study, resources, and a how-to list. Contact Linda Guidice to find out how you can get access to the Project Selector!