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Overcoming Objections to Sustainability: Improve on Past Efforts

This lesson is a part of an audio course Overcoming Objections to Sustainability by Aurora Dawn Benton

In this lesson, I want to talk about a very popular leadership concept: continuous improvement. Most managers and leaders understand the importance of embracing a mentality of ongoing improvements.

But for some reason, when it comes to sustainability, managers often try it once and when it fails they think 'oh well, we tried, but it didn't work.' And while they don't often say the words, what they are often implying is 'since it didn't work, it will never work.' Unfortunately, I hear this a lot!

Anytime a change is rejected when it doesn't have immediate success, we have to take a step back and ask "Is this how we would respond in other aspects of our business?" If a person makes a mistake or doesn't do a project perfectly, do we fire them immediately? I suppose that happens, but generally, we accept that errors and missteps will happen and we build in systems to train, coach, troubleshoot, upgrade, and otherwise make improvements to ensure success.

There are different causes for when sustainability fails, but I have often seen that the idea was actually ahead of its time. If a group was an early adopter of an environmental idea, they might have gotten discouraged by the early failure and just decided to give up. Early versions of electric vehicles were not reliable for long distances, initial attempts at commercial green cleaning were thought to be ineffective, compost systems can start out messy and smelly before the right equipment and processes make them viable, and on and on.

It's important to approach sustainability with a spirit of experimentation, plan for potential failures, and see improvements.

The good news is that I find that once a team starts thinking about how to solve sustainability problems, they tend to solve other challenges that had been plaguing the organization. In efforts to address food waste, one manager told me that they now look at their entire operation differently. That is fantastic news!

Another reason initiatives fail the first time around is lack of training and management support. And yet another is poorly designed initiatives that were conceived without input from the very people essential to the programs success.

Let's look back at an example from an earlier lesson. The towel and linen reuse program is often poorly executed, but if leadership takes time to observe and collaborate with housekeeping on the solution, they are likely to discover several other related needs that could all be addressed with one design.

Where is your sustainability initiative stuck or being rejected because it didn't take off the way everyone expected? What has changed, or what would you do differently? What examples of continuous improvement has your organization done well that you could use as a model for how sustainability should be approached?

To move past this excuse that "you tried it and it didn't work", I recommend you.

Take time to do an assessment of failed or abandoned sustainability ideas. This doesn't have to be an extensive exercise or report. Just describe the initiative, what had been expected, and what actually happened. Identify a handful of people who were involved and interview them. When speaking with managers or those in charge, be careful not to come across as judging the failure. You are there to learn and glean from their experience.

When speaking with people at lower levels of the organization, ask them what they would have done differently. You will be amazed! Those left out of the design and decision making often have the most brilliant ideas for troubleshooting and improving the program.

Next, if possible, compare your organization's experience with those who have successfully implemented a similar idea. I often find in hospitality, given how much mobility there is in the industry, that someone on the team has worked at another hotel or restaurant where a similar initiative was executed successfully. The staff member may be an excellent resource for your continuous improvement plan.

In the next lesson, I will address a common reply to a sustainability inquiry. I ask "are you doing so-and-so initiative." And the answer is "Oh, we're already doing that." Hmmm. Really?

Sometimes the evidence does not match the claim, so we need to investigate what's really going on.

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Written by

Aurora Dawn Benton