Agile Sustainability: The key to business survival
Klara Nenadlova, one of our sustainability experts, explores why agile sustainability should be a priority for any organisation wishing to stay relevant.
At Clarasys, we define sustainability through a three-fold lens, namely Social (people), Economy (prosperity) and the Environment (planet). We believe that to drive impact in these areas you need to be agile, which means scanning the horizon, prioritising where to change, and continuously evolving.
Why agile sustainability builds resilience
According to agile sustainability expert Hugh Thomas-Davies1, truly successful organisations are not only resilient to change, they also resist shock and evolve at the same time. In other words, they thrive under pressure. Thomas-Davies calls this the “Anti Fragile” phase.
To be Anti Fragile, organisations need to focus not just on sustainability in an environmental sense, but also on corporate purpose, culture, and collaboration while continuously innovating. The first step is to combine agile practices with a focus on the triple bottom line (Social, Economic, Environmental). Organisations need to define how social, economic, and environmental factors interplay with their goal or purpose. They need to continually assess and evolve priorities based on this understanding and be prepared to be perpetually adapting the way that they work.
Making agile sustainability work in practice
Agile sustainability in practice requires a cultural shift. For me, the most important concepts are; willingness to learn and innovate, being open to trying something untested, adopting an iterative approach, cultivating a feedback culture, and most importantly psychological safety. This last concept underpins all the others.
Willingness to learn and innovate
A willingness to learn about external factors affecting your organisation and a keenness to innovate will keep you ahead of the curve. This means keeping up with changes in legislation, researching new trends, staying ahead of your competition, as well as creating the best possible products or outcomes for your customers and employees. For example, understanding the type of materials your organisation uses, and researching environmentally-friendly alternatives can help cut production costs and attract new customers through sustainability initiatives.
Being open to trying something untested
Organisations should not be afraid to test out an idea, learn from mistakes, and celebrate “sky's the limit” thinking. Enabling people to adopt agile ways of working will ensure they focus on improving their minimum viable product (MVP), rather than worrying that a task wasn’t carried out perfectly the first time.
For example, a business wants to create a new initiative which will cut costs and move closer towards its net-zero goals, but there’s uncertainty over how the initiative will land with the team. In this instance, trialling the initiative in phases or for a temporary period can help to understand whether the idea is good, and how it can be improved.
Adopting an iterative approach
The journey towards achieving outcomes is more important than the outcomes themselves. In practice, this means focusing on the highest priority item first, working iteratively, and continuously developing ideas. Learn from what works and what doesn’t, continuously stay relevant by seeking feedback, and adjust your approach to factors outside of your control. For example, your organisation has environmental initiatives it is looking to achieve, but you don’t know where to start. ‘Quick wins’ such as putting recycling bins into your office space may not be the highest priority but it will help you start working towards your outcomes and you can give a progress report to your people. This will allow you to focus on longer-term initiatives such as calculating your carbon footprint.
Cultivating a feedback culture
Cultivating a feedback culture is about adapting and potentially redesigning how you operate based on feedback from your people, partners, and customers. Feedback tells you how people are feeling, what they need, and what’s important to them. What you do with this feedback is what matters most.
For example, if you were looking to improve something about a product, such as making materials more sustainable, you would rely on the feedback of not just your customers but your employees, partners, and your supply chain to understand what is possible, and more importantly, desirable. You may receive a lot of feedback, in which case it’s important to prioritise subsequent actions not just based on the frequency of feedback but also on how much acting on the feedback will enable you to achieve your organisation’s objectives. Providing visibility of the actions you take following feedback will further increase the likelihood of receiving constructive feedback in the future, enabling innovation.
Psychological safety at work inspires creativity and ideas. In this environment, team members feel safe to express themselves, they become highly engaged, and performance is boosted. In a safe space, people are open to trying something that is untested, and they become comfortable with sharing unfinished concepts. They will also feel empowered to offer honest feedback. This is why psychological safety is so important when working in an agile way.
Agile sustainability will help to secure a company’s future, but can only exist in an environment that is reinforced with psychological safety. With this in mind, immediate focus doesn’t need to be perfectly defined. Tackling goals in iterative ways enables an organisation to seek feedback and change direction where needed while allowing for innovation in the process.