Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sustainability & The Military: Parallels Between Two Worlds

Since my departure from the Air Force I have had to try and explain to family, friends, and acquaintances what exactly it is that I am doing now. When I explain that I took a role within a start up Portland-based consulting firm called The Gunter Group people can generally follow along. However, when I get into the details of the client and division I work in I often lose people. 

I was lucky enough to have Nike as my first client in the consulting arena. It is a company that I have an immense amount of respect for not only due to the fact they are a leader in the athletic apparel arena, but because that have been a shining star company that continually innovates over time. Of course there is a coolness factor that is associated with Nike, it's products, and it's marketing and at the risk of sounding cliche' that attitude transcends throughout the World Headquarters campus. But it is the innovation piece that I am more closely aligned with in my current role and that is the part of my Nike experience that I find most engaging. It has been a great experience and I really have enjoyed my time at Nike so far.

Not only was I lucky to get Nike as a client but I was also lucky to get on within a unique division of Nike. I work in the Sustainable Business & Innovation (SB&I) division of Nike which in in its simplest form is a bit like a 'green incubator' for Nike. SB&I seeks to innovate and integrate enterprise level sustainability solutions into the Nike business model while mobilizing key external stakeholders to make industry change.

The first question I usually get is, "what do you consult?" The answer is pretty straightforward in that I provide project management support within SB&I. In short, I help to get things done. Execution.

The second question I almost always get is, "what the hell do you know about sustainability?" To be quite honest, when I started I doubt I knew much more than the average college educated Gen Y-er does about sustainability. I had a basic understanding of the concepts surrounding sustainability that were mostly garnered through osmosis in a variety life experiences. That understanding wasn't very deep and it came accompanied with limited context. 

However, having been a part of the division for the better part of four months I may have sold myself short a bit regarding what I knew about sustainability. Although I wasn't formally educated in sustainability concepts and I most certainly had never served in a role within that context before, I came from a background that shares a surprisingly large number of parallels with the sustainability world.....the military. What do sustainability and the military environments have in common?

Systemic Challenges - One thing that I learned in the military is how to operate in challenging and ambiguous environments. Throughout my career and most notably while serving in Iraq, I encountered challenges that did not have a textbook answer. There was not a clear cut best solution...or a solution at all for that matter. There were too many unknowns, too many interests, too many interconnected subsets, and too little time to easily solve problems. In the military you are forced to confront challenges that are spread and interwoven throughout a complex system. In my relatively short stint in the sustainability realm I see the same type of systemic challenges represented. 

Execution - I have discussed on BadskiBlog before that execution is everything. I am, admittedly, probably more of an idea guy by nature. I am energized by strategic thinking and collaborative brainstorming. However, I crafted my ability to get things done in the military and that is something I will always be grateful for. Now I am, in essence, getting paid for my ability to get things done and to serve as a catalyst to help other people get things done. It is a challenge and I am constantly learning but it is exciting and fulfilling as well. A military force that can rapidly work it's way through the planning/decision cycle and execute will have a competitive advantage and will overcome resource constraints to defeat its enemies over time. My sense is that companies will benefit from a similar (albeit less combative) approach to sustainability. Taking sustainability from idea to execution faster that your competitors will become a critical competitive advantage over time.

Leading Change - As an officer in the Air Force I have sat through a few leadership presentations in my day. In fact, my undergrad experience at the Air Force Academy was almost entirely centered around character based leadership. In hindsight, a great number of those sessions drifted into discussions about leading change. The military isn't all about following orders as many like to think. And although as whole the military machine may be categorized as a bludgeoning bureaucracy of sorts, in smaller pockets the most successful units/organizations are all about leading and implementing change. SB&I is all about leading change and I imagine that is consistent throughout the sustainability space. There are a ton of methodologies for leading change (a book review on John Kotter's "The Heart of Change" coming soon) but like anything else academia can only get you so far. It is the organization that can consistently lead change that will prevail in their efforts to implement sustainability or any other initiative for that matter.

Below is a video of Nike's VP of Sustainable Business & Innovation, Hannah Jones, in which she not only provides an excellent overview of what SB&I is all about, but also some of the concepts I discussed above. Definitely do yourself a favor and watch the full video and enjoy Hannah's, very eloquent, discussion on the future of sustainability.

Check out the full video HERE, it is very interesting.

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