June 26, 2009

Can Small Changes Save Your Business, and the Planet?

[From my column on Harvard Business Online]

At a recent executive education program on sustainability, I spoke about the many tactical ways to reduce environmental impacts and save money quickly in areas such as facilities, fleet, IT, telework, and waste (these are the main topics in a free special report I put out recently on green cost cutting). To fit the current economic climate, my focus was specifically on short-term, quick wins. After I finished my talk, an interesting challenge came from one of the program faculty: Given the scale of environmental challenges we face, shouldn't we be talking more about systematic, disruptive changes in how we do business?

After the session, one of the attendees, Mike Desso, Head of the Operations Environmental Sustainability Council for Nestle USA, told me he wanted to ask the group a simple question: "Has anyone here done all the things Andrew suggested?" His point was basically that there are still many simple things companies can do — so why debate whether we're doing the "big" things when we haven't even acted on all the "small" ones yet?

The whole discussion got me thinking a lot about the perceived trade offs between incremental and systematic approaches or, similarly, between incremental and disruptive change. The question is not an idle one given the legitimate concern about whether traditional eco-efficiency approaches will be enough to tackle large-scale environmental challenges.

It would appear on the face of it that incremental approaches won't get us there. So after some thinking, I come down conclusively and firmly...in the middle. In essence, none of these ideas of change and innovation — incremental, systematic, or disruptive — are independent. Instead, they're pieces of the same strategic and tactical puzzle. Arguably, the concepts are inextricably linked: Don't incremental changes spur thinking about — and if they save money fast, perhaps even fund — the larger shifts we need?

See the rest here.

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