What is a sustainability mindset, and how can we create one?

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Home » What is a sustainability mindset, and how can we create one?

by Simon Brod

We humans are creatures of habit. Habits of routine, of behaviour, and of thought. While habits are efficient–they save us having to make every decision from scratch–they also restrict our freedom of choice. We tend not to be aware when we act from habit, so it is a challenge to find a way to break old habits and create new ones. In any given situation, our mindset is dominated by our habitual ways of existing in the world, so changing our mindset often requires us to make a change in the way we see ourselves. In teams and organisations, habits of thought become institutional, making this challenge even harder.

When starting on a new project or venture, ask yourself:

  • What mindset is desirable, even necessary, in you and your team, to increase the chance of success?
  • What habits do we want to get into?
  • What habits do we want to avoid?

Exploring these questions can reveal insights that help shape the endeavour as a whole. A clear, explicit, description of mindset should be a key part of the design of the venture or project, guiding people’s behaviour and producing a distinctive style and approach.

If your aim is to transform your business to become more sustainable, the chances are you will want to let go of some habits of thought. The most impactful changes come when businesses are open to reframe their whole business model, with the outcome that the interests of suppliers and customers, and society at large, become better aligned. Emerging business models such as mobility-as-a-service, chemicals-as-a-service, and even façade-as-a-service, as well as ‘sharing economy’ models (such as AirBnB) have been developed by reframing habitual ways of doing business. They provide services which are more valuable by bringing the interests of the supplier as close as possible to those of the customer, including reducing pollution (see box).

Bayer, a global chemicals firm, is a major player in the USD 30 billion/year weed control business. An important niche market is railway companies, which need to keep their tracks clear of unwanted vegetation. Traditionally, this was a commodity chemicals business in a competitive market with low margins, and Bayer was in the habit of trying to sell as large a tonnage as possible of its product.

Bayer found a new way to improve its customers’ performance, increase profitability, and reduce the need for harmful chemicals. It abandoned the assumption that selling more tonnage was the key to success. Instead of continuing to see itself as a bulk chemicals supplier, Bayer became a leader in automated delivery systems. It developed technology to pinpoint doses of product exactly where needed from a moving train, minimising the need for chemicals and reducing disruption to railway timetables, thereby creating a more valuable service for railway companies. Bayer is now exploring totally chemical-free weed control – a far cry from their chemical industry roots.

Only you can determine which mindset is best for your project or venture. A good mindset description will guide how people act in their daily work. It helps to use

  • feelings (examples: confidence, joy);
  • attitudes (examples: be generous, keep it simple); and
  • beliefs (example: the key to our success is high volume).

But how do you approach the job of describing the best mindset?  How do you select what’s really important? And how do you ensure the whole team commits to this mindset?

Reframing techniques offer a tried and tested way to help see situations from a new angle and make choices. Based on the science of psychology, they were introduced into business thinking in the 1990s and further developed by management philosophers such as Karim Bennamar.

What assumptions are you making?

Start by asking: What beliefs and attitudes might prevent you from succeeding? Explore what underlying assumptions about the situation might support these beliefs. In a group setting, this is an opportunity for any objections or doubts to be put on the table and acknowledged, and for people to exercise their imagination and think about what attitudes would be counterproductive.

For example, at the IT department of a construction company, a common belief was that nothing the team could do in the way of reducing CO2 emissions would be impactful enough to make a worthwhile difference. Underlying this belief were two unspoken assumptions: that IT could only influence CO2 emissions of its own activities; and that small reductions are pointless.

It can help to use a mind map to show the field of underlying assumptions and their relationship to each other, building out from the central statement which is the belief you want to reframe (see illustration). Having made those underlying assumptions explicit, imagine their opposites. Start with a literal opposite–in our example:

actions that have small impact are not worth doing 


actions that have small impact are worth doing.

And then enlarge and exaggerate, for example–

even actions that have tiny impact are worth doing; 

actions with small impact should come first;

we can make the impact of any action big.

Now some of these statements may feel wrong or impossible, but go with the process (more on this below). Use the same mind map structure, but this time starting from the outside and working in, to write down these statements. Once you’ve worked through the outer part of the field, consolidate towards the centre, creating statements which are consistent with the ‘opposites’, and leading to a new, reframed, central statement. The whole picture will look something like this:

If it feels comfortable, you’re probably doing it wrong

This work with opposites is best done in small groups, where people feel unconstrained. Get creative and have fun together. Go with it, especially if some of the statements make you feel uneasy. There should be some discomfort as you are now viewing a situation through a totally different lens than the one you are in the habit of using. That discomfort is exactly what we are looking for: it shows you are reframing something that matters to you. And, despite the discomfort, it can be fun. New insights emerge.

Reframe your own attitudes, not other peoples’

A word of caution: it only makes sense to reframe your own world view and behaviour. Reduce your statements to ‘I’ statements. Reframing other people is nothing but wishful thinking. For example, reframing the belief that my boss won’t give me the budget is not a useful thing to do. But reframing I will not be able to persuade my boss to give me the budget can be useful and might well reveal insights that you can act on–the emphasis being on what you yourself can do, not what you would like your boss to do. There may be many reasons why you believe you won’t be able to persuade your boss, and almost certainly some of them are things you will be able to address once you identify them.

Back to our example of the team who felt nothing they could do in the way of reducing CO2 emissions would be impactful enough to make a worthwhile difference. After reframing, this had morphed into we make sustainability our priority. In the process of reframing, the team found clarity, confidence, and alignment. The new mindset statement became a fundamental part of their strategy. Today, the team consciously takes the lead within their company in adopting sustainable practices and encouraging others to do so.

The advantage of using a reframing process is that it enables you to work systematically to establish practical ways to address mindset. There are many ways of conducting a reframing process, and all of them centre on describing the opposite to the beliefs and attitudes that are getting in your way. This is where new insights emerge, because you are forcing yourself to look at the world in a way you are not used to – in fact, you are breaking a habit. In doing so, you open yourself up to seeing things differently, focus on what is possible, and explore solutions that you might not normally consider. Result: a wider choice of courses of action. And because you go through this process in an explicit way in a group setting, it naturally converges on outcomes that have buy-in from everyone.

In summary, reframing is a powerful tool, especially in complex situations where you need to change established habits of behaviour and thought. This makes it particularly relevant when addressing sustainability challenges, such as when trying to reduce pollution from complex production operations or long supply chains. Start by understanding what assumptions you are making, especially underlying assumptions. What is it about the way you view the world that supports those assumptions? Which of them are most instrumental in creating the limitation you wish to remove? Once you have this picture, write down the opposite of those assumptions. Explore those opposites. Exaggerate them, make them as extreme as possible. Go with the process, even if some of the statements feel impossible. What kind of situation do they describe? Once you have a full picture of these ‘opposites’, find those that contain useful insights which lead to courses of action you would not normally have considered. And those limitations you experience will not feel so daunting when you see possible ways around them.

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