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Don’t Repeat Your Sustainability Mistakes on this Groundhog Day!

Groundhog day got me thinking about Bill Murray’s character in the movie Groundhog Day.  Bill Murray might have loved all those chances to get things right, but sustainability managers don’t have the luxury of iterating mistakes.

Even if you tie your sustainability goals to your company’s strategic plan and pick projects to support those goals, you can still suffer failed projects. For instance, perhaps through surveys you found out that employees at your organization were not very informed when it came to matters of sustainability. Yet the free information sessions you held in response to this were not well-attended. Educating your colleagues would still be something desirable, but how can you craft an education project that won’t hit the same wall again?

And this is just one example. There are plenty of reasons for a sustainability effort to be less successful, whether it’s limited resources, poor communication, too long of a time-frame, or poorly anticipated benefits. Yet that doesn’t make these efforts worthless, or their goals infeasible.

One way to keep your company from repeating the same mistake is to ask yourself this question: was the cause of the failure a top-down or bottom-up issue. Asking this simple question will provide you context for how to tackle a do-over.

A “top-down” mistake would mean that your project was unable to gain the support or resources required from middle to upper management to make it successful. A “bottom-up” issue refers to an issue surrounding the employee base, such as poor turnout at an event, or an inability to correctly follow instructions (perhaps with a computer power-down or anti-idling policy).

Let’s say one of your sustainability goals was to reduce your company’s waste footprint. If the problem was that your efforts to educate staff on proper waste management fell flat because your waste and recycling bins were non-uniform, or too few and far between, then it sounds like it was a “top down” problem. Perhaps this time, you could attempt to secure funds to standardize waste receptacles first, and then educate about your company’s specific recycling program.

If the issue instead seemed to be that your information sessions were poorly attended, or your posters that detailed which items can be placed in the recycling bins were ignored, then this indicates a “bottom-up” issue. Your solution for this might be to offer a drawing for prizes to those who attend your education sessions, or to add an information page about proper waste disposal to the homepage of your company’s intranet.

Generally, “bottom up” issues become far easier to solve with the support of management, and “top down” issues can be addressed with proper communication.

There are certainly going to be days where implementing your sustainability program feels like an exercise in futility. But so long as you’re willing to think critically about the cause of your mistakes, there’s no reason you’re doomed to repeat them. When you wake up, it will be February 3rd.