Bad attitude Bert or Open-minded Olivia – which are you?

construction worker jealous and businesswoman with earnings on white background

Kick-off workshops for sustainability on large projects are ‘golden moments’. Excitement about winning and starting a new project has not waned, team members are fresh and not jaded, and there is an initial collaborative spirit. A single opportunity arrives to present the idea of sustainability to the team and set the right tone. At these times, my colleagues and I like to point to the effect that attitude has on success and cost.

Even now many senior professionals are unfamiliar with the nuances of sustainability, so the inclination towards it that they develop on the job can go either way. They may adopt a positive, or a Bad Attitude.

Having done this a lot, we can identify at least two polar archetypes of leaders on large projects in relation to their approaches to sustainability: ‘Bad Attitude Bert’ and ‘Open-Minded Olivia’.

Bad Attitude Bert doesn’t have time to understand. He thinks sustainability is ‘just a client thing’. It’s not part of the scope and there’s no value in it. It’s unenforceable anyway and not incentivised in the contract. He will deny requests and scuttle initiatives with an ever-handy default decision of ‘No’.

On the other hand, Open-Minded Olivia is willing to ‘have a crack’. She recognises the strategic value of sustainability to her future business and is keen to learn what is needed. (Let’s face it, unless its’s your last project before retirement, you’re likely to encounter sustainability again.) Olivia looks for ‘sweet spots’ that deliver value and sustainability and helps make connections among team members (because sustainability is necessarily cross-cutting).

We’ve come across many Berts and Olivias and one flabbergasting thing is that Berts think they are saving money! But in our experience, Berts jump on false economies and miss opportunities, while Olivias stumble across some cash-positive beauties through innovation. In a classic false-economy example, we found one team member spending hours taking screenshots of Survey Monkey results instead of paying $35 for a subscription.

It is not always possible to draw a clear link between sustainability programs and cash savings. What appears to be the case is that where a sustainability program emphasises innovation, and challenges business as usual, it provides ‘space’ to develop innovations that yield significant capital savings. We have witnessed this approach saving projects millions of dollars and reducing construction times. In quantifying costs, we also know that the cost of a positive attitude equals $0.00.

Bert and Olivia are leaders and the tone they set affects performance and cost. Bert theorises that he is saving money by sending a ‘no cost is too small’ message to the team, killing any cost creep before it starts. Not only is this unrealistic, but it is an innovation killer. Bert’s team is forced to look for work-arounds and can end up stuck with higher-cost options to meet targets after cost-effective ones were ruled-out for spurious reasons. By working with an open mind, Olivia adjusts her approach to incorporate sustainability, thereby prioritising cost-effective options.

On one occasion, we had a Bert self-identify as ‘the devil’s advocate on this sustainability stuff’. As the workshop unfolded, he began to recognise the potential cash value of the tone he presented as a leader. Perhaps he concluded that there was no real downside to a positive attitude, and by encouraging lateral thinking, the team could access a wider body of ideas that might deliver value and please his client.

Being open to other people’s ideas and willing to work through a structured process to identify, rank and evaluate options is not just ‘greenie mumbo jumbo’ – this is how some of the best projects achieve amazing outcomes.

Be like Olivia.

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