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Saving the Struggling Sustainability Program

By now, many organizations have gone through the cycle of initially gaining momentum and then being required to present the business case for your organization’s sustainability initiative. The program has either developed through internal grassroots efforts or a more top-down deliberate approach. Every situation is unique; however, you can usually tell if the program is beginning to struggle if you notice a difference in the current status of the program compared to when you first started. Do you know if your program is struggling to stay afloat?

Typically, organization-wide programs and projects of any kind struggle because of any one or a combination of these problems: being out of scope, behind schedule, or over budget.

Warning Signs

  • The ability to identify a disconnection with a program’s scope is difficult. Especially since sustainability is vast and we want it to be inclusive in implementation and adoption. Assuming that there was proper planning involved before starting this initiative, you should have set some goals, parameters, key problems to solve, and flagship projects to start with. What you developed then was the roadmap and now the road you are on is off the page because of too many changes as you’ve developed. Sustainability leaders must identify the projects and campaigns that are creeping outside of the true mission of the program and immediately pull back to reassess if and how it fits into the parameters. It’s important to remember that although you want to champion many projects and make an impact, you cannot let the quality and value created slip (as mentioned in a previous article Strategic vs. Project-Based Approach to Sustainability: Part 1).
  • Problem solving and completing deliverables are critical in order to show overall progress and success. The next task is effectively communicating that progress to leadership and the rest of your team members. As sustainability champions, if you see your teams or projects dwindling down to a stagnant level or even moving too slow you need to kick it back into gear. Most projects relating to sustainability should start from the gates with a bang and keep that same momentum throughout since the end-product that was decided on is one that will be more profitable, environmentally beneficial, and widely praised through staff and customers.
  • Nobody likes wasting money — especially in projects and programs relating to sustainability that are supposed to be profitable. Be sure to remember that although every goal achieved by the program may not mean dollars saved directly, they do need to have indirect benefits and value.
  • Lack of visibility and declining team involvement are obvious warning signs of a struggling program. As mentioned in past articles, make a big deal of small achievements. Has focus and visibility of accomplishments become the norm? Have your team members stopped responding, coming to committee meetings, or lost their internal drives to move the program forward? Lack of time and resources are typically the culprits of these actions here. It is the job of the champion to keep the program fresh and team members engaged as well as equipped with the right resources and support to execute projects.
  • Organizational leaders and executives outside of the realm of sustainability can fail when they mistakenly try to be supportive by exhibiting “faith” (wishful thinking) but not ensuring that the program is operating well.  It’s great to trust people, and it’s also great to check their work. Become a better and more supportive leader by checking frequently on quality and progress.

How to Prevent…

  • Address the fact that you want to have a successful program long before the effort actually starts. This may seem simple but it is imperative to completely define the vision, expectations, and goals. Many organizations just start the effort with a roadmap without support or those high level parameters. Be objective. Start projects well — by getting the implementers (engineers, technical experts and do-ers) involved in the planning stage, much earlier than is typical, to create proper expectations among the sponsors.
  • Earlier we identified three key warning signs: scope, schedule, and budget. With sustainability programs, those items are difficult to completely define and at times impossible. In that case, value is all we’ve got to measure. Identify whether you’re providing value by collecting feedback, referring to the achievement of your goals, and measuring against key performance indicators.
  • Equip your team with sufficient resources, training, support, and motivation. Sustainability is about improvement and change, two very difficult tasks in the realm of organizational behavior and corporate culture. Be sure you send out your team ready, informed, and motivated. Reward and recognize your team and even yourself.
  • Use proper change management — you cannot control change, only manage it. What’s the difference? Change management is the process of adapting the project to unavoidable changes. It also involves challenging change requests to see if that change undermines the original purpose of the project.

How to Rescue…

  • Capitalize on a failure you’ve had before. Take the lessons learned and look at problems and fall outs and map out what happened, why, and how it can be done better. Drill all the way down to actually fix the problem.
  • Re-establish executive and management support by reinforcing the connection to business benefit and contribution and to overall organizational strategic goals.
  • Realize reality! Are you in over your head in order to make this program a success, with limited resources and assistance for yourself as a sustainability champion? Do you have the tools, training, and skills needed to rescue the program on your own? Looking ahead, are you capable to operate this internally without external help? Just think, if everyone is capable of filing their own taxes, then why do we pay licensed professionals to file them for us?

Jeff Benavides is a LEED Accredited Professional with a specialty in Operations & Maintenance (LEED AP O+M). Jeff is Senior Project Manager at ecoPreserve: Building Sustainability, which provides turnkey strategic planning, project management and building certification consulting services to incorporate sustainability into organizations and buildings of all sizes. Follow @ecoPreserve on twitter and at www.ecoPreserve.netJeff can be reached at jeff@ecopreserve.net.

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