The day I stood elbow deep in garbage, donning plastic gloves and sorting types of waste, two things came to my mind: I have to send a picture of this to my Mom with the title “career highlights” and … you really learn a lot about people when you sort through their trash!
That latter insight made me realize that our “tale of three trash bins” (one each for recycling, composting and landfill) was less a story about sustainability — or waste reduction and diversion to recycle and compost — and more a story about systems thinking and behavioral change.
Never did I think I would learn so much, nor be so interested in rubbish! It’s not the actual trash of course; it’s what it represents that got me excited because I quickly realized that as a company, as individuals and as communities, we can make a positive impact toward solving big, global problems simply by understanding our systems better, which in this case means being smarter about the products we choose and the way we dispose of them.
There are many stories within stories in this tale, so I asked the uniquely talented team of faculty and students at Presidio Graduate School to document our story from a systems thinking perspective, with the goal of sharing it with other sustainability professionals or students. My hope is that by providing some real “hands on” (or “hands in,” if you will!) examples, we can provide a basis of learning — and some inspiration — for those looking to undertake business transformation initiatives for sustainable value.
Here are a few of our key insights:
1. People first
People are at the core of business systems, and change cannot happen without people. Systems are made up of interacting and interdependent components — and each person relates and interacts with non-living systems very differently. Focusing on people first as the primary “users” of our systems is vital to the success of the initiative.
2. Listen to the music
“Culture” is the background music of a system; it’s one of the most vague yet prevalent words you hear when people explain the success (or failure) of any business initiative. It is hard to explain, to quantify, to assign merit or blame. It’s like background music — sometimes you hear it, sometimes you don’t — but it’s always there. It can be a distraction, making everything feel out of synch or overpowered, or it can bring people together in a harmonized and collaborative environment.
3. Tune in to feedback
Effective feedback systems are essential for the successful implementation of any initiative. Systems and people are dynamic and can change in response to feedback, so it’s important to allow for flexibility in a plan to incorporate changes along the way. Feedback mechanisms help us gain new insights, gather new ideas, and communicate a sense of possibility toward achieving our goal.
4. More than 20/20 vision
Framing a business initiative within the perspective of systems thinking means taking a holistic approach to change, analyzing not just the immediate department, area or process, but all of the dependencies and connections as well. This doesn’t mean changing everything — it means understanding what other systems are impacted by the proposed change and then defining a goal with a better chance of successful achievement.
5. Systems never rest
Just when you think you’ve discovered every last cog in the system, you will discover a new one. This could be a new group of employees who have not had the benefit of the original education or a new compostable material that hasn’t been tested — or any unintended consequences that could hinder or improve progress. That means we have opportunities for continual improvement, and ultimately that equips us with new tools for future transformation initiatives.