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Design Thinking – Human Centred Approach to Sustainability Engagement

People make our “sustainability world” go around.

Designing Your LifePeople – with all their complexities, different world views and motivations. It is not an easy feat to get people on the sustainability bus – and keep them there. So we try things; some succeed, some fail, some succeed or fail over time. It can be risky businesses. Too risky for some companies; some who don’t even try; worried about the impact of failure on employee morale and productivity.

So when I was recently introduced to “design thinking”, a human-centred approach to design, I wondered how it could reduce our risk of failure and help us learn from it.

In their book “Designing your Life”, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans note that design thinking involves five mindsets.  Here is my take on their application to sustainability engagement.

Be Curious– Burnett and Evans say curiosity makes everything new. It invites exploration, makes everything “play” instead of “work” and helps you “get good at being lucky.” They suggest that curiosity is the reason some people see opportunities everywhere. In sustainability engagement, we have used curiosity in “Solution Lunches”. Want to know how to increase biking or carpooling at work? Order a pizza, invite people to lunch and ask them. Your reflective questioning skills and genuine curiosity will reveal important and surprising insights.

Try Stuff – Design thinking has a bias for action. It wants us to create prototypes and pilot stuff.  Allowing and encouraging failure is good as long as you learn from it.  One company launched “What if” projects to great success. Employees were encouraged to team up and propose changes to products, processes and facilities that would increase environmental sustainability. Over time these projects were refined to include leadership mentoring, help from finance to make the business case, a party and a competition for a cash prize.  Boom– the employees transformed the company and the number of “What if” projects grew year after year.

Reframe Problems– Reframing is how you get unstuck. Burnett and Evans say it ensures you are working on the “right” problem, examines your biases and opens up new solution spaces.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been told by company leaders and sustainability engagement managers that engagement is low because “People in our company just don’t care about the environment!” Is that really the right question? Shouldn’t we first find out “what” they care about it, and then make the connection to the environment? If you care about eating, breathing, drinking or living someplace on the planet, you are connected to the environment. Let’s reframe our thinking about sustainability.

Know it’s a Process– Burnett and Evans remind us that “life gets messy”.  For every step forward there might be two back, mistakes made, and prototypes thrown away.  “Letting go” of an idea that doesn’t work is an important part of design thinking. It’s a process. Something was gained from the mess – what was it? If you were one of the people who insisted that every office or facility approach sustainability implementation and engagement in exactly the same, cookie-cutter way and it imploded, don’t worry. You just learned that “one size does not fit all”.  While learning from the process, you may invent a program with regional site flexibility and a rich diversity of initiatives that can be cross-shared.

Ask for Help– Design Thinking tells us to use radical collaboration. Designing a sustainability engagement program is a collaborative process and many of the best ideas come from other people including, detractors, mentors, your network and others with aligned objectives.  No doubt your sustainability engagement program is underfunded. Search out collaborators in Human Resources, Community Investment, Health and Safety, Environmental Compliance, Quality and Risk Assessment. You are all in the “people” business and by pooling your resources you just might create a little magic – together.

Want to learn more?

Join Wendy and I in our upcoming SEENTalks Webinar entitled: Fail Forward: Reflection and “Failure” Reporting for Continuous Improvement, November 30, 2016, 12 noon EST.

Learn about collecting feedback on success, reflection and reporting for improvement in your Sustainability Engagement Programs. Sign Up Here: Fail Forward: Reflection and “Failure” Reporting for Continuous Improvement


Designing your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life. By Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. 2016

2017-04-11T20:58:40+00:00 Uncategorized|0 Comments

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