Culture Change Drives Environmental Improvement
“What I’m doing is socially engineering organizations by working with employees so they can shift their company culture and drive business performance — and even personal performance,” says Elizabeth Frisch, president of Culture Technologies, Inc. and director of development for A Nurtured World.“
One of the things we’re committed to is inspiring people, enrolling them, and getting them connected with their passions in the workplace. This is just like we do on the consumer side with A Nurtured World, getting people to commit to green living in their home, so that being environmental is not about suffering, deprivation, and “something else that is on my To-Do list.” Instead, you create space around it, so that it’s this open frontier. There’s all this possibility!”
Culture Technologies is working with the Dallas Cowboys to green their new Cowboy Stadium, a topic you’ll read about in tomorrow’s post. Today, we talk with Elizabeth about how Culture Technologies helps businesses become more environmentally responsible through culture change. We spoke with Frisch from her office in Austin, Texas.
FRISCH: We founded Culture Technologies, Inc. back in 2002. I joke that I’m a recovering chemical engineer. I really thought that I could design things so that they work, and if I just did the process complete enough, or made the project perfect enough, that it would be implementable, and it would happen, and people would do it, and it would get done.
I started my career back in the late ’80s, and one of the things over the years that kept coming up for me was, no matter how well I designed something, no matter how well I designed the product, no matter how perfect my work product was, if people didn’t do it, use it, take it on, or commit to it, it was a failure. It was a waste of money for my clients.
And so, I had one of those “Aha!” moments that something was missing. And what was missing was, we kind of treat people as functions in a process instead of living, breathing, non-predictable beings. We put a lot of emphasis on designing out the human element. We think, If we just put enough systems in place, the mistakes, or why people don’t do what they should, will go away. But the reality of it is, you can’t design that out. All of our organizational systems are made up of people.
FRISCH: I met Susan in the 2000-01 time frame. She had been doing a lot of research on how to get consumers to change behavior, and I had been consulting on changing people’s behavior at their company. What we realized was, we were both using some robust techniques, tools, and models to help people get power over their own ability to change their behavior as well as transform others’.
Susan had set up A Nurtured World as a nonprofit in 1997 to work with the consumer, but we wanted to take it a step further and help organizations do the same thing.
BPGL: Why organizations, when Susan was already doing personal change workshops?
FRISCH: What’s the biggest thing people always yell out about their job? “It’s bureaucracy! The system or company won’t let me do it.” There’s this thing called “organizational culture” that people say is the reason why things aren’t going the way they should. So we started developing techniques we had already been using with clients, but hadn’t really created as a product in themselves, to start going in and actually working to shift organizational culture.
We worked hard our first couple of years out just to get all those models in place that define how you shift culture, and how you inspire people, and how you have enrollment conversations, and how you get people to make commitments and have integrity, and all those things that are required to have an organization that’s transformational and can do amazing things around the environment.
That was the birth of it. Although I say I’m a recovering chemical engineer, I spend most of my career doing social engineering now. I love my engineering background. It’s been amazing, because when you work in environmental stuff, you’re dealing with science, you need it just as much.
BPGL: When you say that you’re changing behavior, you sound like a psychological, behavioral engineer, rather than a chemical engineer. How did you get into the psychological end of this?
FRISCH: It was more from a fascination in my own personality with what makes people tick. I’ve always been curious about human nature in general. I also have been very frustrated with myself about when I can’t change something, as to why I can’t change. And so I started doing research of my own on what’s missing. I’m an engineer, I’ve got to have the data. I started reading books and talking with people. Then I met Susan. She had a consumer conservation model she was using, and I thought, This makes sense and works!
BPGL: What’s behind the name of your company, Culture Technologies?
FRISCH: We help people understand the nature of culture. My mom used to tell me that “no” was the start of negotiations for me. I literally came out of the womb that way. That’s a pretty unique trait, I’ve discovered. For most people, “no” is no, and they quit. And if you’re going to do anything transforming culture or dealing with a bureaucracy or creating any kind of social change, “no” is a really common answer.
One of the other things that we do is help give people who are working in organizations a deep understanding of culture, in general, but specifically their culture. We actually help them identify their culture in black and white. It gives them some power of understanding and room to take action. It’s just the nature of culture to resist change. People make resistance wrong, but resistance is great! You’re not up to anything if you’re not hitting a resistance. You’re not changing the status quo, if you’re not getting resistance. We do exercises around changing people’s relationship with resistance and with getting told “no.”
We’ve made getting told “no” into a failure. Failure is looked at as wrong! But Susan and I have created exercises we hope free people from letting failures stop them. It gives them a context to see what failure really is, so they can just let it go. If you want to be up to social change, it’s not a perfect path to enlightenment. If it were, we’d all be in heaven right now. We’re creating people who can lead, no matter what their job title and what circumstances they find themselves in.
BPGL: How do the companies you work with use your trainings to improve performance?
FRISCH: Companies can use our training to drive performance in any aspect of their organization. But our passion is driving environmental performance. We want to make a difference in footprint reduction on the environment. So we’ve taken all those models we’ve developed, and we use them very specifically to drive environmental performance improvement.
For example, we helped Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) put in their commute-solutions program to get employees out of their cars, even when gas prices are low. We were getting them out of their cars before gas prices went up, and we’re continuing to do that after prices have come down. It’s those kinds of tangibles, like getting people to actually choose to do the desirable behavior and get measurable positive outcome.
BPGL: Have you worked with any municipalities?
FRISCH: One of the projects we just finished is that we worked on a contract for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). They’re the environmental regulatory agency here in Texas. We helped 11 cities implement a performance-based environmental management system around their operations. The cities of Waco, Lubbock, and Austin, and eight cities in the Dallas/Fort Worth area went through that process with us. It took about a year. Cities are reducing their carbon footprints, too. It just makes sense.
Businesses got savvy to going green earlier, because they have a profit base. Now cities are dealing with strapped budgets and high fuel prices, and other things. They’re finally realizing that they have to do the same processes that businesses have to do in order to keep their employees and keep growing and keep providing the quality of service. A city is a business, but it’s in the business of keeping their residents’ quality of life high.
It was a coached approach, so each city had a certain number of staff that they volunteered to come to the classes, and we would coach them, provide models, and practice what they learned. They would get homework, and we would do workdays and site days.
BPGL: How are you assessing the impact of your work with these cities?
FRISCH: We’re just getting to the measurement phase this year. Our goal was to get all 11 cities into the Clean Texas program, which requires them to commit to environmental goals and carbon footprint reductions. One of our first measurements is that all 11 cities are supposed to get into the Clean Texas program in the next three months. Then, annually thereafter, they report their outcomes and what they’ve accomplished. So by March or April, I’ll have the metric of how many actually did it and what exactly they committed to. Then one year later, we’ll get their measurables and see what they’ve accomplished.
People shy away from measurement. That’s one of the reasons I think environmental activities have not gotten the attention or respect they should. If you don’t measure it, you can’t prove it. And when you’re dealing with something that’s business- or money-based, you’ve got to be able to put it into those terms. Or else, it wasn’t really successful.
For social change programs, too, one of the things Susan and I work on for organizations is, How do you measure that it improved? Even on warm and fuzzy stuff, you still have to figure out a concrete way of measuring behavior change. So what do we measure? Susan just did a grant project that was all around, How do you measure? What do you measure? Is it working? Well, you can say, the traditional measurements are, We contacted so many people, or We handed so many of these out, or This many people took this home. But that doesn’t say whether it resulted in a change in behavior. That just measures that you put knowledge out there.
BPGL: So, how do you measure change?
FRISCH: That depends on the behavior. If it’s an easy behavior change like recycling, it’s a real easy measurement. How many people are recycling? How much are they recycling? Is it going up? That’s a very straightforward one, because you can measure pounds. But, if it’s a social change, you can ask, How many people are now routinely donating to an organization? There are other behaviors you have to look at and quantify.
I think this next generation of environmental performance is going to come from organizations who recognize that true sustainability and long-term performance improvement will only happen if the culture supports it. Otherwise, things will just keep going back to the status quo. It’s exciting to be a part of the process supporting that shift for organizations and use my “engineering” skills in ways I never imagined.
Part 1: Culture Change Drives Environmental Improvement (Top of Page)
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)