Climate Change? Not my job.

[In my first two post on my time in Durban (South Africa) I covered the triple energy/food/weather crisis that has hit the city, and the renewable energy projects currently underway. Here is more on finding innovation in unexpected places.]
Why do Some Institutions Innovate, While Others Fight Change?
You'd be surprised how many times I've heard people tell me that they're concerned about climate change, but that dealing with it is just not “in my job description.” That's the difficulty – both with institutions that are firmly set in their ways, and with an issue that is everybody's problem, but no one's responsibility. Organizations like the World Bank recommend creating a solid home for climate change somewhere in the municipality. Durban has done just that – actually it has two: an Energy Office and a Climate Protection Branch.

But climate change involves all aspects of what city's do: from coastal management, to transportation, to health and economic development. One (or two) small teams aren't going to change all that on their own. What they need (as much as adequate staff and funding ) are other departments in the municipality who are willing to say “I've got my job description covered – now let's do something different!”

In my last post about Durban, I gave a snapshot of the ways that the water department (DWS) is pulling renewable energy out of its sewage and water distribution system. The opportunity for hydropower and biogas was there. But plenty of opportunities go unrealized – particularly when you are paid to do something else. Why has DWS jumped at the opportunity to build renewables, while other departments – like the municipal electricity distributor – haven't? I spent some time talking with people from DWS about exactly that.

Trained Incapacity: You're So Good...You're Bad
Officially, it's a classic case of co-benefits. Neil McLoed, the head of DWS, made the whole thing sound very mercenary: “ It's all business to us, it's all about the bottom line. All our energy from waste projects, they are purely to try and minimize our electricity bills. The fact that it benefits climate change is incidental to us.” He, and other people at DWS, also linked the energy from waste projects to municipal priorities to push economic development, and improve health and quality of life. But just below the surface, it was clear that they were also motivated by the rewards of innovation itself.

Many institutions and professions train employees not to innovate. Rules are followed with dogmatic precision. There is “a right way” and “a wrong way” to get things done. Requirements that employees conform are built into job descriptions, performance evaluations and promotions. What comes out the other end are people so focused on one way of doing their job (and of understanding the world) that they can't see (or can't act on) opportunities for change. Old approaches can persist, even when they've long stopped being good policy (see the current mess that American automakers are in for a good example).

It's not a new problem. 100 years ago sociologists were already criticizing what they called “trained incapacity.” (a.k.a. you are so good at something you can't do anything else.) Rather than use departmental structures to encourage over-specialization, DWS has engineered them to do the reverse.

A Culture of Innovation
McLoed speaks pointedly about the need to create a culture of innovation in the department, and the pressures it can put on people: “you tend to find that people that like change and innovation stay [in DWS]. ... There are lots of people who don't and they either leave or are asked to leave.”

At an individual level, employees are expected to see their job descriptions as the minimum level for their work. Beyond that, the organizational culture of the department pushes employees to think critically about how to achieve their objectives and how to address problems. “Take responsibility and challenge everything that you do in your job.” McLoed said, “ I always tell people, don't come with a problem, come with a solution. Here is the issue, here is how we can solve it. Always going to your boss for a solution becomes very limiting both for you and for me.” It might sound clich├ęd laid out like that, but it seems to work.

At the level of the organization as a whole, similar principles apply. Cross-level meetings bring staff together to collectively brainstorm solutions for problems that they are having. “We get everyone from clerical staff right up to senior management in the same room looking at the same problem and bringing their own perspectives in,” McLoed explained. The department also holds a monthly sustainability lecture series, to bring in fresh ideas from researchers and consultants on everything from food security to LEED buildings. It was brainstorming here that was the starting point for DWS's biodiesel projects (see last post).

DWS is a learning organization. It has institutionalized the need to innovate, and encourages employees both to seek out new opportunities and to take risks on new ideas. Facing a future that is hard to predict, it seems to me that these are the kind of organization that will do us the most good. They are also inspiring places to work. Responding to climate change is a staggering challenge. But it's also an amazing opportunity. From what I've seen, when you give people the room to think creatively, and to push the boundaries of what they do, they thrive. They definitely deliver a lot more than just what is in their job description.
For more on my time in Durban see:
pt.1 Durban and the Climate Future
pt.2 Sewer Pipe Power: Urban Renewables


2 Responses to "Climate Change? Not my job."

Alex Aylett said... 24 April 2009 at 14:53

If you like this stuff, Erica Schoenberger's book "The Cultural Crisis of the Firm" is a great discussion of the same themes. She looks at some of the deeper reasons behind the troubles American automakers have had in adapting to a new market and new competitors.

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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