I was recently asked by Sustainable Brands Media to share some quick points about the insurmountable wall between departments together with some other clever peeps. This is what happened.
Despite the progress being made in organizations around the world in the pursuit of sustainability, many still suffer from internal breakdowns in communication on the subject, even when all teams are, ultimately, working toward the same goal. We asked a variety of practitioners their thoughts on solving two of the perhaps most common “language barriers” within companies today — that between Marketing and Sustainability teams, and between LCA practitioners and, well, the rest of the company. And the common theme around solutions seems to involve little more than changing your perspective.
“’Why won’t anybody listen to me?’ This is the question that many sustainability professionals working within large companies find themselves asking over and over again. However, as every marketing person knows, effective communication starts with the audience. A better question might be, ‘how are people hearing what I am saying,’ or ‘what is it that they are tuning in to, and how can I be more like that?’
There is one rule of thumb that might help with what is a very difficult but critical challenge: Actions speak louder than words. This is especially true when people speak different languages, such as in the case of marketing and sustainability. As soon as sustainability people start to produce work that is brand-led and business-focused, with the same kind of creativity and imagination that hogs the limelight within the internal walls of consumer brands, then the internal communications dynamic will start to change on its own.
“When you start hearing questions back the other way like, ‘So, what are you working on?,’ you know you are on the right track.”
— David Hawksworth, co-founder, Given London Limited
“I believe that a change in perspective is needed in LCA practitioners. Let’s stop trying to convince others how important LCA is and let’s start listening to what they need to achieve their goals. That will also help us understand the language they use and the ambitions they have. Departments and companies all have a unique language and are made up of different people. If you want to be relevant, it’s essential to speak the same language as the company or value chain you’re trying to serve. It’s as simple as that. Only in collaboration you can make a difference.
LCA experts need to show how their metrics are complementary to what others do, because supporting others is also daily practice: Companies and people work with many different tools and approaches, and there’s no single truth. If a scientifically robust approach isn’t also pragmatic, it won’t last long.”
— Eric Mieras, Managing Director, PRé
“Interdepartmental communication. Say it out loud to yourself. Sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie and is up there with interstellar travel, but let’s get the air out of the balloon and both feet planted firmly on Mother Earth. If your colleagues’ work or department seems slightly alien to you, I’d suggest a simple trick that has entertained millions of TV audiences around the world — a job swap, or The Big Sustainability Role Switch.
“Don’t we all like to marvel at the meeting and quandaries between cultures: Cowboys and Indians, aliens and earthlings, knights and barbarians, marketing and sustainability? And we all become gratified when the hammer hits the nail on its head and the human truth is reiterated: Genuine understanding comes from putting yourself in somebody’s shoes. So pursue that Kevin-Costner-Dances-with-Wolves moment and embrace your colleagues’ departmental mystique and roles — and ask them to do the same. “Swap positions for a day or maybe just a half — and by the end of the experiment, sit down around the campfire (or the coffee machine) and share each other’s out-of-body (or maybe just -role) experiences. Then you’ve taken the first step on a healing path to interdepartmental, interstellar and supersonic communication. Bon voyage.”
— Thomas Kolster, Founder & Creative Director, Goodvertising Agency
“A good approach is to start by asking yourself why other departments or customers need the metrics. What do they intend to use the results for? The internal goals of the department or company can also provide you with a valuable indication of what your audience is likely to be interested in. Another tip is to show your audience where they can really make a difference. Some insight into how they can have a positive impact will probably also be welcomed and open doors.“
— Ellen Brilhuis-Meijer, Technical Consultant, PRé
“Here’s what I like to call The Dressing Up Box of ‘Now I’m Interested,’ aka how to successfully engage other departments in a Sustainability conversation.
• Choose an outfit: To dress your conversation appropriately, start with your audience insight. What motivates them? What keeps them up at night and gets them out of bed in the morning? Where’s the ‘win’ in real terms for the department you are talking to: an improved talent recruitment strategy? Unlocked innovation? Brand reach? Partner value? Operational Improvement? That should shape the In and Out of any conversation you have. Care about what people care about.
• Stay in character: On too many occasions, ‘S’ people start well enough — with their audience’s best interest front and foremost — but quickly regress back into the arcane world of ‘S’ conversation and agenda. If the only thing you sustain is an absolute focus on how what you do unlocks value for them; you’re in with a fighting chance (and so will they be when they have to sell it back up the line to their direct report).
• Break the ice: The more brittle the conversation is likely to be, the more the drinks party rules apply. Wear the conversation and your intellect lightly. It’s not just about scenario planning the conversation beforehand. It’s about taking the temperature in the room and the conversation — and responding and adapting to it.
• Bring a gift: Showing them an example of how what you do creates and captures value for them is always a good thing to do. Because it requires you to engage the world through their lens and in turn makes your arguments and propositions both more compelling and more resilient.
• Keep it real: Remember, “the end of the month comes before the end of the world” — the wellbeing of the planet and the future of civilization are not top of everyone’s mind. Every person and department has short‐term objectives, imperatives and deadlines they must meet. Always frame your long‐term ambitions inside their short‐term objectives.”
— Julian Borra, founder/Creative Strategist, The Thin Air Factory Ltd
“Clearly communicating your data needs is often harder than it seems! Take the time to clearly explain what type of information you need, in what format, and what scope. Many projects have been delayed or derailed not because the data didn’t exist, but because there was a miscommunication or misunderstanding about what was needed! Take the time to step back and describe what you need, why you need, and what formats would be best.”
— Cashion East, Technical Specialist, PRé
Let’s break some walls down and develop a shared language!