The Elephant in the Room: Dealing with Change in Sustainable Product Development

Let’s face it. Underlying any efforts to green your product, increase the sustainability of your organization or boost your environmental efforts is one common factor: change. Change is not for the queasy or the faint of heart. It requires enthusiasm, excitement, a little bit of courage and definitely confidence.  But it seems like whenever you talk about your sustainability strategy, you see people rolling their eyes or not making eye contact at all; you hear the sounds of crickets chirping or people mumbling under their breath; you catch a blank smile or a deer-in-the-headlights look; or you feel the victim of passive aggressive behavior, resistance, and even downright hostility. Maybe your sustainability strategy has been shelved since its approval or never even reached approval as a result of a number of concerns, challenges, and fears. This is despite all of your research, numbers, charts, graphs, and other proof that the changes you are suggesting will make the company more efficient, more profitable, and more sustainable.

Change Potentially Threatens to Displace People by Making their Roles Obsolete

Keep in mind that the world around you is already turning and that it wants to keep turning. Your colleagues are already busy doing their thing, manufacturing is busy doing their thing, your suppliers are doing their thing, and so forth. Change threatens to disrupt that. Non-effective change threatens to make people’s lives more miserable by increasing their work load, increasing risk of failure, etc. Even effective change potentially threatens underneath it all to displace people by making their existing ways of making a living obsolete. There are a few things you can do to anticipate and minimize these challenges.

Create New Roles for People by Engaging them in the Solution-Making Process

Before you even start developing your sustainability strategy, realize that this is not a one person or one department project. Rather, you need to actively engage staff, departments, your suppliers, and business partners that will be significantly impacted by the change.   The reason you want to do this is that you don’t really want these folks to be impacted by the change—you want them to be the change, so that they barely feel the impact. As these individuals begin to create and implement solutions, they are also creating new areas of expertise and redefining their daily roles as part of the solution. This is maybe one of the most important things you can do to get people to support a sustainability strategy—let them work together to develop it. As a result, they will grow with and benefit from the change, rather than getting hit over the head with it.

Fire Change Diagram

Close the Innovation-to-Manufacturing Gap at the Onset of the Innovation Process

Working together is especially important in closing the innovation-to-manufacturing gap, which can be a deadly cliff for many technologies. There are companies who spend millions annually on R&D only to shelve technologies that cannot get manufacturing approval because the innovation would require too much change. Make sure R&D and manufacturing are working closely at the onset of the innovative process. That they both understand the underlying goals of the project and the alternative approaches to getting there. That they have collectively identified the hidden costs of innovation—i.e. new equipment, new skill-sets, obsolete tasks, obsolete machinery. Ask these two groups to collectively determine how cost impacts can be mitigated or spread out over a manageable time frame and what the existing manufacturing team can do now in preparation for the inevitable changes in technology.