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Organizational Change
Achieving Your Sustainability Goals Through a Human-Centered Approach

Daggerwing Group’s Michelle Mahony discusses operationalizing sustainability strategy, purpose-washing, and equipping teams to be ambitious in the face of the greatest challenges of our time.

Companies don’t change; people do. This is a core philosophy that drives the work of Daggerwing Group — a change-management consultancy that focuses on one of the hardest parts of change and business transformation: People.

Sustainable Brands® caught up with Managing Partner & President Michelle Mahony to explore embedding and operationalizing sustainability strategy, purpose-washing, and giving people the tools to be ambitious in the face of the greatest challenges of our time.

Daggerwing Group is celebrating its 25th anniversary next year. How has your work evolved over that time?

Michelle Mahony: The biggest thing that has changed is the realization by organizations around the world that having a solid strategy for navigating change is crucial for transformation efforts to succeed. We focus on the human side of change: the beliefs, mindsets and new ways of working that need to accompany any kind of change — especially in a world that has never been so messy or complex.

We know that 75 percent of change efforts fail. And it’s important to remember that just because you build it, it doesn’t mean people are going to come. You can have the best strategies, processes and tools in the world for your transformation; but change only really happens when the cost of not changing is greater than the cost of changing at the individual level. People need to be supported through the process and feel part of the change — so that it’s not just happening to them but with them.

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This is particularly true for the complex change that is required for organizations to meet their sustainability goals, as this shift requires a whole new paradigm for how businesses need to operate and how people make decisions every day. And we are finding that organizations as a whole have done a lot of great thinking about their goals and what they need to do in this space. Now, they are shifting a lot of their thinking to how they need to change to reach very ambitious goals.

Often, we lose sight of the fact that a business is essentially a group of people making decisions. That gets lost sometimes, doesn’t it?

MM: Yes. A business has no sense of consciousness or self-awareness. A business is not expected to make any kind of moral judgments; it only exists to grow and be profitable. But if that growth runs completely unchecked, it can cause terrible impacts for people and the environment — the results of which we are living with on a planetary scale.

It is only the people inside a business who can create a moral and business imperative and think about growth in a new way that is healthier for the planet, for people and for the business itself.

And when we think about the types of people we need as part of this change-management process, what are the characteristics and behaviors we really need to see within businesses right now?

MM: We need growth and learning mindsets. However, we don’t have time to learn everything and then act. We must learn and act as we go in order to meet the challenges — experimentation, failing fast, learning from mistakes and continuing to evolve.

Part of the problem we have right now is psychological. There is a feeling of, ‘Oh, I give up; this is too overwhelming. We’re not going to make it. Humanity is doomed.’ And although there is a lot of really awful news around this hitting us every day, we cannot afford to settle into doomed complacency. So, part of what we need to do is instill hope and galvanize people into action.

The other problem is that, for the last 20 years, sustainability conversations have been going on in siloed departments. What is your advice for truly embedding sustainability within a company?

MM: Traditionally, sustainability efforts are solely managed by the Chief Sustainability Officer and their teams. They implement some policies and there is a core group of experts and strategists to make things happen. But sustainability is not an initiative; it is a way of doing business.

Sustainability needs to be owned by everyone to garner the energy that is needed to make it real. When efforts exist in a silo, people often use language that nobody else understands in the organization because it’s incredibly complex or super scientific. So, making it a story that everybody can tap into is the answer.

It’s about instilling sustainability into leadership decision-making in the actions that we take every day. We see lots of companies kicking the can down the road, saying, ‘We can’t get to it this year, but we’ll get to it next year.’ That’s going to fail. We can’t keep doing that. But what you can do is make it more manageable, prioritize and plan.

There is plenty of debate right now about the pros and cons of ESG reporting, which can be to the detriment of real action because companies are so fixated on reporting that they fail to get anything done. What’s your take on it?

MM: ESG as a concept is something that needed to happen. But I think the idea of ESG as one entity needs to go away; because they’re very separate issues requiring their own strategies and measurements for the E, the S and the G — sticking them into one index doesn’t make sense. But we absolutely do need metrics and accountability; and my hope is that ESG reporting will continue to evolve in a way that makes sense and creates greater accountability in each of these areas.

You spend a lot of time helping companies operationalize sustainability. What common, big challenges are firms still grappling with?

MM: Companies are generally pretty good at changing their processes. The challenge is bringing people together so that they understand what is changing, what a company is trying to accomplish, why and their role in it.

There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach for every organization. Depending on the goals set, different stakeholders within an organization will be affected differently, at different times, and will have different roles. So, you need an overall change plan that encompasses the big story; and then you need to dive deep with priority groups, and ask: ‘How are you going to be impacting these goals? What is your role?’ That’s the kind of detail that you need to get into as you operationalize, because each group can differentially move the needle forward.

There is a big difference between transformation and incremental change. Transformation can often feel too big and scary; but incremental change can be seen as nowhere near good enough. So, is there a middle ground for companies?

MM: Different companies have different appetites for how much they’re going to take on. It does feel overwhelming; but the good news is the “burning platform” has never been hotter. I mean, it is there; it is daunting — but if you don’t step into this work, you’re going to fall behind as a business. So, everyone needs to get a little bit braver and really do what they can — not only does the world demand this, but your business does also.

Companies continue to invest heavily with creative teams to renew their mission, vision and purpose. Is it enough to have a 'purpose' when it comes to achieving sustainability goals?

MM: No, it’s not enough. The definition of integrity is when what you’re saying and what you’re doing match each other. When you have a low ‘do,’ nobody trusts you. When you have a low ‘say,’ you are open to interpretation.

Your purpose, mission and/or vision are great; it gives everyone the true north and the language to talk about what it is you’re trying to do. But without the ‘do’ to back it up, it’s just empty fluff.

It feels like you are still full of hope after all the years working in sustainability.

MM: Well, I’ve always had a personal interest in environmentalism. I come from Washington State, which is a cradle for that thinking originally.

We can all individually take actions to be “greener” and do our composting and recycling, and that’s great; but unless we fundamentally change systems in the world — which corporations, governments and coalitions have the power and responsibility to do — individual change is not going to be enough.

It’s hard when you look at the news and see the impact climate change is having on our planet. But we have no choice but to be hopeful — otherwise, we lay down in a puddle and die, which is just not an option I want to consider.

I try not to be a Pollyanna about this stuff and be realistic; but we have to find ways to maintain that optimism. And I do believe in our ability to solve great challenges when we have to, when our very existence is at stake.

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