Change Agentbig

All images from Alan AtKisson

I had the pleasure of attending Sustainable Silicon Valley’s (SSV) two-day Sustainability Change Agent Training with Alan AtKisson, November 16th and 17th. It was a packed workshop full of information and interactive exercises.  Parts of it fully engaged me and parts of it left me feeling frustrated, so I decided to wait a few weeks before writing about it.  I wanted to see which concepts and tips stuck with me. AtKisson, a sustainability consultant and author, has built the workshop around the principles explored in his recent book, The ISIS Agreement:  How Sustainability Can Improve Organizational Performance and Transform the World. Chapters 7-10 cover much of the information presented in the workshop.  The unique thing about the training, and where the real learning took place for me, is AtKisson’s interactive approach that included story telling, singing and small group and one-on-one exercises.

More than 70 participants from a range of sectors participated. Sustainability directors from large Silicon Valley companies such as Intel, Yahoo! and Palm, sustainability managers working for municipalities, NGOs and consultants gathered to learn about the ISIS Method–a methodology for transformation that integrates indicators, systems, innovation and strategy.After letting things percolate a few weeks, my favorite three tips to be a more effective sustainability change include:

1.  Walk the Talk: Personally, I spiral into a pessimistic place at green conferences when I see piles of cardboard and waste piled up in the trash cans after the lunch break.  My thinking is this: if we are expecting others to implement greener practices, we need to go the extra mile to practice what we preach.

In AtKisson’s system, he stresses the importance of understanding the different roles people play within a system. So was I a Change Agent (a person skilled at promoting ideas) when I made the request that our sandwiches be served on a platter, rather than brown paper bags, on day two?  Or was I seen as the Iconoclast, a critic of the status quo?

Kudos to both SSV and our host, Applied Materials, for rising to the occasion and making some simple changes on the second day. While reading the book afterward, I came across Rule 1 in the Code of Ethics for Sustainability Professionals (see page 114):  “Walk the Talk: We cannot promote change in others if we are not striving to exemplify that change in our own personal and professional lives.” If you are planning a green event, take the time to plan it to minimize its impact (if you need some help, here is an older post I did on Six Steps to the Greenest Meetings Possible).

Prymid2. Before Moving Into Action, Look at the Whole System and Identify the Best Leverage Point(s):  One of the best concepts presented in the training was the reminder to step back and spend some time thinking strategically–identify key indicators, understand what is causing key trends and think though the system implications before moving into action.

AtKisson has several frameworks to help organizations think more strategically about systems:

  • The Compass of Sustainability, which integrates the perspectives of natural systems, economy, well-being and society. The tool helps organizations include all these different perspectives when thinking about the future;
  • The ISIS Pyramid, which guides organizations to begin by thinking about data and trends (indicators), to build a map of critical links and connections (systems), to identify the key leverage points in a system and the best way to make change (innovation) and finally to plan carefully how to introduce a new idea in a way that it will thrive and spread (strategy);  and
  • The Amoeba of Cultural Change, a tool for mapping cultural change strategy and planning for successful diffusion of innovations.

Using the issue of water supply in Silicon Valley as the issue of focus, we worked through the ISIS Pyramid process, building understanding and agreement step-by-step. We played with developing simple maps that linked causes and effects within a system. While the maps were a bit of a mess, they did help identify potential leverage points for intervening in the system.

I also liked AtKisson’s framework, based on the innovation diffusion theory of Everett Rogers, that suggests five aspects  that will enhance the likelihood of an idea spreading :

  • Relative advantage–is it a better idea than what exists?;
  • Complexity–a complex idea is harder to spread;
  • Observability–will others see it?;
  • Trialability–can others test it first? and
  • Compatibility-will it fit into the daily flow?

3. Don’t Spend Too Much Energy on the Reactionaries and Curmudgeons:  AtKisson uses the metaphor of an amoeba to reflect the different roles people play within a system and how they affect decisions to adopt, ignore or resist new innovations. Another key tip that is often overlooked in the rush to get things done is to understand the key players within the system you want to impact and be strategic about where to focus your energy.

AmoebaHe has identified a range of roles, including the Innovator, the person who invents a new idea, but is often overly enthusiastic about it; Change Agents,  people skilled at repackaging ideas and convincing people to try or adopt them; Transformers, organizational gatekeepers who are interested in new ideas, but selective about which ones they allow past their filters; and Mainstreamers, who tend only to adopt a change when all the incentives line up and when the people around them are all doing the new thing.

Then there are the Controllers. The advice was stay out of their way so they don’t kill an idea too soon! Curmudgeons are pessimistic about change and can zap your energy.

In our simulation, the Iconoclast was so busy loudly complaining about the status quo and the reactionary so effective in opposing the idea, that the change agents and innovators headed off into a corner to work amongst themselves.

While ignoring the Reactionary and Curmugdeon is a solid strategy, don’t forget to bring others along that eventually will be your allies.

The take home message–a Change Agent needs to create alliances with Innovators and Transformers and avoid the negativity of Crumudgeons, Laggards and Reactionaries (see Chapter 9 of the book for more strategies on the Amoeba). AtKisson concludes Chapter 9 by saying, “Life is too short, and the stakes are too high, to waste time trying to sell ideas to people who oppose them, resist them or kill them–or who will sap a Change Agent’s energy.”

On a final note, check out AtKisson’s recently published a essay called Pushing Reset on Sustainable Development, outlining his thoughts on how to continue accelerating sustainable development in an era of financial collapse.


Deborah Fleischer is president of Green Impact, a strategic environmental consulting practice that helps companies engage employees, strengthen their relationships with stakeholders, develop profitable green initiatives and communicate their successes and challenges. She brings deep expertise in sustainability strategy, stakeholder engagement, program development and written communications. You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact

Sustainability Consulting Bay Area

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