The 'do they really mean it?' test

Sustainability initiatives! Low-carbon innovation; gender equality; getting rid of single-use plastics; well-being.... In-house sustainability change makers and the consultants who help them are forever devising and launching initiatives and campaigns to get colleagues to do things differently. Sometimes colleagues take them up whole-heartedly and they develop a life of their own. Sometimes you get feeling people are sighing and rolling their eyes, waiting for it to fade away. What makes the difference?

There’s a silent, almost unconscious test the people run in their heads, when they are told about something new that’s being brought in at work. You’ve probably done it yourself.

Do they really mean it?

Or can I safely smile and nod and then ignore this, because it will just disappear?

You want your initiative to be one that takes root and flourishes, outlasting you. And this is only going to happen if people believe it will.

How do people in your organisation test whether ‘they’ really mean it?

The first thing to say is that the answer will be different in every organisation. It may even be different in different parts of the organisation. You need to understand the evidence people look for when they ask themselves this question, so you can build this into your change strategy.

How do you discover it? If you have been in the organisation a while, you can go some way by reflecting on your own experience. Your analysis will be more accurate if you also do this exercise with a cross-section of colleagues.

Here’s an exercise

  1. Think of a change that has actually happened in your organisation, which is roughly of the same magnitude and significance as the change you are hoping to bring about. It doesn’t have to be anything to do with sustainability.

  2. Tell yourself the story of the change, backwards:

  • How do I know the change happened?

  • What happened just before that?

  • What happened just before that?

  • And before that?

It’s important to remember what really happened – the informal and unexpected, as well as the planned, set-piece elements.

As you remember how the change really happened, ask yourself:

  • At what point did I believe the change was here to stay?

  • What evidence made me think that?

  • What made me confident that ‘they’ really meant it?

For example, this person works in a large engineering business. When we did this exercise in a workshop he said:

No-one took the sustainability initiatives seriously, until we saw that our legal department had rewritten the standard contracts. Then we knew they meant it.

“How do we know they really mean it?” When you know the answer, build it in to your change programme.

Making the Path by Walking

This post was first published in my Making the Path by Walking newsletter, January 2019. For practical tips on facilitation, organisational change and sustainability to your inbox each month, scroll down to the footer to subscribe.