Sustainability Success: Why You Need More Than a Green Culture

Individual champions take advantage of ambiguity to push for more sustainable projects
green calendar

The essentials

  • To achieve highly sustainable projects, it is more important to have individual champions driving sustainability than a “green” organizational culture.
  • The most effective champions take advantage of windows of opportunity when there is “ambiguity or conflicting views of how to do something.”
  • In a study, organizations with a high regard for sustainability turned out projects with lower environmental benefits.
  • Enablers, known as micro-processes, are actions taken by individuals, such as learning, networking, and proving value, that encourage project teams to think beyond the status quo.

You have two firms: one boasts of its “green” culture while the other makes no effort to preach environmental responsibility. Which of the two can be counted on to turn out sustainable projects?

If a recent study is any indication, a “green” corporate culture means a lot less than having individual champions driving projects to be more sustainable.

Smith School of Business researcher Jane Webster, along with Smith graduates Jacqueline Corbett (now a professor at Université Laval) and Tracy Jenkin (now a professor at Smith), conducted case studies of green projects at four organizations: one in software development service, one in hospitality and event services, and two in education (private and public institutions).

They looked at the projects in terms of their environmentally sustainable goals and how employees actually carried out the projects — whether they traveled less and did more videoconferencing, for example.

The researchers found few examples of Earth-friendly processes being used for projects. But they did notice a curious phenomenon when it came to organizations that boasted of their green credentials.

Acting on Ambiguity

“Everyone talks about how you have to change the culture of the organization and make it green, and yet the organization that had the greenest project had zero culture of green,” says Webster. “They actually didn't care at all.”

What really made the difference was the presence of passionate individuals who pushed for sustainability on projects in which they were involved and took advantage of openings. “We found that they were able to push when there was some kind of ambiguity or conflicting views of how to do something,” says Webster. “We call those windows of opportunity.”

“Just having a culture of sustainability doesn't necessarily result in green projects. You need these conditions for change” 

In the case of the greenest project among the case studies, the confluence of an environmental champion and windows of opportunity was the key to success. The project involved the upgrading of power and heating/cooling infrastructure at an existing data centre for a multinational software development corporation; its sustainability champion was the IT director.

“The champion always saw these windows of opportunity as opportunities for learning, so he would send out his employees to do research,” says Webster. “He was an engineer and he never believed anything anyone told him, so he had to do the research himself.”

Key Enablers

On the other hand, organizations with a high regard for sustainability turned out projects with lower environmental benefits. In one of the case studies, which involved inventory management software, there were few windows of opportunity to leverage because there was little conflict between the organizational identity and the business drivers of the project.

The study identifies a number of enabling actions that contribute to the success of green projects when they occur during windows of opportunity. Referred to as micro-processes, they are essentially actions taken by individuals, such as learning, networking, and proving value, that encourage project teams to think beyond the status quo. These are not individuals content to just fit in, merely “reinforcing what you have always been doing.”

When it comes to the enablers, however, timing is everything. “Some of these advantageous micro-processes early on in the project have a much more positive effect than at the end,” says Webster. In one of the projects, “we saw that they were doing all of the good things at the end, but it was too late.”

Lessons for Green Leaders

Leaders interested in investing in sustainability initiatives, Webster says, have to recognize that “just having a culture of sustainability doesn't necessarily result in green projects. You need these conditions for change.”

The study suggests updating the project management book of knowledge to guide project managers on how to address environmental considerations, and thereby allow them to take advantage of windows of opportunity as they arise. “Practice needs to catch up,” she says. “We need to be considering what we can do in organizations.”

Further, organizations should recognize that merely providing knowledge or information does not work in the environmental area. The connection between beliefs and behaviours is quite weak. Instead, organizations should focus on developing a set of key sustainability-related competencies, such as systems thinking and the ability to motivate and encourage collaboration. This, says Webster, “would help people turn windows of opportunity into green decisions.”

Sparrow McGowan

For more background on this study, see: 

Corbett, J., Webster, J., & Jenkin, T. (in press). Unmasking corporate sustainability at the project level: Exploring the influence of institutional logics and individual agency. Journal of Business Ethics.

Smith School of Business

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