Most environmental organizations want to fight climate change and encourage energy efficiency – and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), based in Colorado and founded by legendary advocate Amory Lovins, is no different. But what’s striking about the organization is the savvy and pragmatic way they’ve honed their message and partnered with major corporations to drive environmental change. As RMI President Michael Potts likes to joke, “If this is really a ‘revolution’ in Marxist terms and the means of production are changing hands and we’re going to shoot the leaders, that dictates a certain set of actions. But if we’re not going to shoot the leaders, then we have to work with them.” Indeed, RMI has built its reputation by finding productive ways to work with industry. If you’re facing a situation where your objectives are complex and politically fraught, here are four lessons you can take from the Rocky Mountain Institute’s experience about how to accomplish even the most challenging goals.
Accentuate the positive. It’s easy for environmental groups to mobilize donors with doomsday messages about planetary degradation – and, frankly, they have a point. But, while some people may be “scared straight” about the need for environmental intervention, others take home a paralyzing message that nothing can be done, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, asks Potts, “How are you going to tune your message in order to make a positive difference? The question is how to shift from ‘who’s right?’ to ‘what’s the next action?’”
Focus on shared interests. The surest way to a business leader’s heart is helping them make more money. RMI is welcomed into boardrooms because they maintain a clear focus on what matters to their partner companies. “What we try to do is unlock stores of value, and mobilize leaders toward that,” says Potts. Currently, RMI is running an initiative to encourage companies to upgrade their buildings’ energy efficiency. “Half the energy used in buildings is wasted,” he says. Many times, it’s possible to upgrade a building’s energy efficiency by 30-70% and pay it off within 3-5 years. “Right now, we’re working with AT&T to look at a whole portfolio of their properties. They’re the second-biggest building owner behind the U.S. government, and [with regard to energy efficiency upgrades] they’re under constraints for shareholder value, but that’s the reality, and we said let’s work with that.”
Work within political realities. The consensus in the environmental community is that climate change is both real and manmade. Not so for some business and political leaders – so how can you make progress with such wildly divergent viewpoints? If you’re RMI, you look for common ground on other fronts, while acknowledging political realities. “One of our motivators [for the work we do] is climate change,” says Potts. “But we want to come up with solutions that are compelling without using the climate change cudgel, because most resource decisions have nothing to do with climate change.” Instead, Potts focuses on questions like “Can we agree that waste is bad? Can we agree that providing the same services with much less fuel is good? Can we agree that economically viable renewables are a good thing? The RMI approach is trying to drive positive change that’s going to happen, acknowledging our constraints.”
Help them envision the future. For many companies, making environmentally-beneficial investments – even those with rapid paybacks – just isn’t a priority. That’s why Potts works to help them embrace new leadership possibilities. “In every industry, there’s a bell curve of companies that are leading vs. lagging,” he says. “The leading players tend to be more economically vibrant and smarter, and they think more strategically, and take a longer-term view about where they’re going in 10 years. We’ll talk to them about how one of the smartest things they can do is mitigate their operating risk by making investments that can address the volatility of energy costs,” especially through efficiency and renewables. After all, says Potts, “A company that’s more aware of the next 10 years’ wave will do better over that 10 year period.”
Convincing corporations to embrace environmental responsibility can be an uphill battle. “If the race in the 20th century was to see who could consume the most fossil fuels the fastest, the race in the 21st century is who can deliver the best quality of life with the least amount of fossil fuels,” says Potts. “But the infrastructure is very aligned toward the success factors of the last century, and it’s tough to make that turn.” Nonetheless, with its optimistic, action-oriented approach, the Rocky Mountain Institute is making solid progress. And if you follow their strategies for winning over influential players while operating within political or cultural constraints, you’re likely to find success, as well.
This post was originally published on the Forbes website on October 12, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.