01/27/2014 11:24 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2014

Sustainability, Leadership and Management Innovation

Last week, my Earth Institute colleague, George Sarrinikolaou, and I began team teaching a new course at Columbia on innovative sustainability leadership. Each week we will host a guest speaker from the emerging sustainability profession. Some of our guests are private sector sustainability leaders from major corporations, others are government sustainability managers, and some play similar roles in the non-profit sector. Many of the speakers we are hosting have worked in two or all three of these sectors. Our first sustainability speaker was Steve Nicholas, Vice President for U.S. Programs, Institute for Sustainable Communities, and former Director of the City of Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment. Nicholas was an early sustainability innovator in a city that pioneered the field of sustainability policy and management. In many ways, the integration of economic development and environmental protection that came to New York City with PlaNYC 2030 began over a decade ago in Portland and Seattle. In addition to Steve Nicholas, our other guest speakers will include:
  • Katherine Gajewski, Director of Sustainability, City of Philadelphia
  • Al Iannuzzi, Ph. D., Senior Director, Worldwide Environment, Health & Safety, Johnson & Johnson
  • Jonathan F. P. Rose, President, Jonathan Rose Companies
  • Lori Ardito, First Deputy Commissioner, New York City Department of Transportation
  • Susanne E. DesRoches, LEED AP, Assistant Chief, Resilience and Sustainability, The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey
  • Howard Warren Buffett, Executive Director, Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Adjunct Professor at Columbia and former policy advisor in the Executive Office of the President of the United States
  • Vance A. Merolla, Director of Environmental Sustainability, Global Supply Chain, Colgate-Palmolive Company
  • Alain E. Kaloyeros, Senior Vice President and Chief Executive Officer, College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering
  • Cynthia Cummis, Deputy Director, GHG Protocol, World Resources Institute
  • Jigar Shah, CEO, Jigar Shah Consulting, Founder, SunEdison, former CEO of the Carbon War Room (invited)
  • Howard Slatkin, Director of Sustainability and Deputy Director of Strategic Planning, New York City Department of City Planning
  • Anne Simpson, Senior Portfolio Manager and Director for Corporate Governance, CalPERS

As George and I prepared for the course, I thought about the rapid spread of sustainability managers and management throughout the economy and throughout America's cities. As a student of environmental policy, I find it a positive and almost predictable evolution of the field of urban environmental protection. By integrating environmental protection into the center of urban economic development, we have begun to hardwire a healthy biosphere into a standard requirement for effective and enlightened urban governance. Just as we expect competent garbage pickup, rapid snow removal, excellent school systems, comprehensive public safety services and extensive programs for those in need, we also expect clean air, water, and a toxic-free environment.

As a student of organizational management I also see a profound effect from sustainability initiatives on the internal functioning of organizations. Most people that study and teach about organizational management understand that organizations have a tendency to stop innovating and retreat to the safety of tried and true standard operating procedures. I call this organizational gravity. There is an almost natural pull to earth and to overdependence on thoughtless, ordinary, repetitive functioning. People get comfortable, managers become more and more interested in protecting their perquisites and everyone becomes risk-averse. While organizations find themselves subjected to gravitational pull, there are also forces that push organizations in the opposite direction; new technology, new regulations, changing customers and new expectations can force organizations out of their comfort zones.

This is not to say that all change is good and that stability is bad. Organizations are, in essence, collections of coordinated standard operating procedures (SOPs). SOPs are those preformed patterns of behavior designed by organizations to respond to specific stimuli. You walk into the fast food joint, ask for fries, and people at the counter and in the kitchen know exactly what to do. You place an order on Amazon and set of specific behaviors begin in response to your order-and then subsequent actions are taken in response to the response to your order. However, in a world where technologies, social norms, and economic life are constantly changing, organizations must learn to respond to those changes with new standard operating procedures. Organizational change is becoming the new normal.

For example, as computing power became less expensive and as wireless and satellite communication became the norm, we could develop bar codes on shipping packages to track goods through the process of production and delivery. Those technological changes resulted in new SOPs throughout retailing. But as UPS and FedEx learned this holiday season, a sudden decrease in live shopping coupled with a sudden increase in online shopping overwhelmed the standard operating procedures and the organizational capacity to deliver goods with the promised speed. The sudden change in shopping behavior created new demands within these overnight carriers. In response, heads roll and organizations are reshuffled as new SOPs are developed to ensure that failure doesn't become a habit.

Just as information and communications technology led to organizational change, the development of containerized shipping, air transport and outsourcing created a global economy that also stimulated organizational change. All of these changes made organizations more effective and efficient, and also created benefits and costs for workers all over the world. Again, change is not always for the better, but in the modern world it must be seen as a way of life.

The move toward sustainability is creating another incentive for organizational innovation and change. Organizations that once ignored the cost of water, energy, raw materials and waste management can no longer afford the cost of inefficiency and thoughtlessness. Walmart directs their suppliers to demonstrate that they have built sustainability and efficiency into their production process. A cleaner environment is not an add-on to the production process, but an integral element of the cost structure of creating goods and services. An effort is made to reduce and, if possible, somehow use the waste byproducts of production. That thoughtfulness can make production more efficient and lower costs, while also protecting the environment.

Universities, hospitals, hotels and manufacturers are trying to use less energy, water and materials to deliver goods and services. The process of analyzing and implementing these resource savings is changing organizations and their standard operating procedures. Managers can no longer ignore what I call the "physical dimensions of sustainability" to specialize in finance, labor, marketing and strategy. Just as managers in the 1980s and '90s needed to learn about information management, and how managers in the 1990s and at the turn of the century needed to learn how to navigate the global marketplace, today's managers must understand and manage the physical dimensions of sustainability: energy, water, raw materials and waste.

The guests speakers at our new course are all innovators and change agents. They are the enemies of organizational gravity and, along with our students, give me hope that my faith in human ingenuity is not misplaced. Through innovation we will defy organizational gravity and somehow manage our way out of the sustainability crisis we now face.