Creating change from within the belly of the beast

So you want to green up your organization

Within any large organization, from corporations to government bodies, there is inertia. Status quo. There are also many frustrated, brilliant people who want to see change, innovation. They want to see business as a force for good, not just as a force for ‘less bad’. This blog is for those people.

Some organizations are able to innovate, turn stagnant business models into a force for forward-thinking leadership. Xerox’s pioneering remanufacturing  model, where they started seeing photocopying as a service rather than a product, is one example that comes to mind. Others aren’t able to innovate and they die (let’s have a moment of silence for the hummer). But how do you know which kind of organization you work for?

From my experience working with large organizations on internal change, here’s how to tell if you stand a chance:

Is there leadership buy-in and support?

What do the top dogs think? Are they open to change? Do they appreciate green ideas? Even if they’re working within profit constraints and can’t necessarily implement brilliant resource-saving ideas, are they excited about moving in this direction? Without at least one bigwig ally, the best initiatives and ideas are more likely than not dead in the water.

Is there an obvious tie-in with your strategic direction?

If you can point to the direction your organization is looking to go and very clearly articulate where a sustainability lens will help, then you’ve got a good leg to stand on. Regulation is also a shoo-in: if you’ve got emissions reductions targets to meet, then serious brownie points to the members of staff who figure out how to do this in a way that’s best for business.

If you went looking for allies do you think you’d find them?

Are there other eco-warriors in your organization, perhaps at the next cubicle over or on the third floor in the accounting department? Real change needs support from all levels within an organization so you’ll need to find yourself a wealth of champions to have a chance at success. Find likely and unlikely allies. Of course include facilities and Environmental Health and Safety staff but also include the receptionist who’s passionate about car-sharing and the marketing person who wants to see a product packaging revolution.

Can you identify some low hanging fruit?

In order to get others on board, a few early, easy victories are massively helpful. If one switch still turns on your whole buildings’ lighting or your recycling system is a mess, you’ve got the chance to get a few easy successes under your belt & amass wider support before moving on to harder challenges.

Are you an unreasonable optimist?

A really unreasonable optimist? People say that being an entrepreneur is difficult. Not to knock those who strike out on their own, but in my opinion being an intrapraneur – someone creating change from within – can be even more difficult.

Much like an entrepreneur, you’ll often feel alone and you’re forging a new path, but as an added bonus you’ll sometimes find yourself swimming against the current of status quo and business as usual. So if the idea of being a salmon swimming upstream, fighting a fierce current the whole way, is an exciting challenge for you, I say go forth and make change from the inside! Otherwise, it’s better to focus on cubicle decor and updating your CV.

If you think you’ve got a pretty good chance of success, then it’s time to start casting your eye around for the early champions who’ll throw in their lot with you. Next step, start planning how you’ll make your case to the powers that be – it’s crucial that you think this through and find the right approach and the right moment.

This blog is the first in a series about influencing sustainability from inside large organizations. Next up – how to go about it.


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About lizmcdowell

I am a strategist, facilitator, social entrepreneur, campaigner and occasional tetra-pak wallet-maker. Learn more about me at

One response to “Creating change from within the belly of the beast”

  1. Jen says :

    Low hanging fruit?.. sounding like municipal politics.

    I think it is great to encourage those who have opted for traditional employment to put energy into improving the ethical and environmental practices their employers put out in the world. I also think it is important to encourage people with salaries, comfortable homes and healthy families to support external forces of positive change and those willing to put privilege and comfort aside to do grass roots work. Cudos, re-tweets, and person to person word spreading are all well and good, but there are people on and below the poverty line brave enough to do critical work that can transform how we co-exist on this planet (flora and fauna included).

    Encourage small donation pools, group volunteering activities and other meaningful and tangible forms of support for those who whose work is primarily focused on positive changes to the social and environmental imbalance Industry and consumerism and status based thinking has caused.

    The benefit of someone “workin’ for the man” doing the latter is that they don’t have to give up on their ideals and intensions if they can’t find buy-in and support from within their workplace. Perhaps doing the latter first will help them connect more closely to their values and will provide knowledge and confidence for when they talk to co-workers about what they think can be done from within.

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