My sustainability failure story, and why to tell yours

Working on behavior change is hard – “yada yada yada”, we’ve all heard this before.  But how hard?  Do you even know?  Before trying to find stats on last years’ resolution-makers, check in with your own life.

There’s something so captivating about failure – more than just the bloopers of a feature film, stories of what didn’t work maybe engage us at our most core selves.  Failure conveys vulnerability, weakness, some inherent hypocrisy, but most importantly one’s humanity.  I guess this is why I was advised to begin any behavior change presentation with a story about a behavior that I had tried and failed.

It was an effective way to share something about myself – introduced the personal nature of behavior change, placed myself as a victim of the influences I was about to describe, and showing the magnitude of the challenge of what we, as practitioners, are trying to do.

I share the story on this blog now, because I’m simultaneously writing a story about some successful behavior changes (sustainable and healthy) I’ve recently made.  Here is my failure story – please enjoy, revel even…and consider sharing your own next time you want to convey the difficulty of realizing the behavior change you’re working toward:

When I worked at CERTs, we often had lunch together at a central table. A couple years ago, we were having one of these lunches and Katie, a new member to our team, interrupted us to ask, “Why don’t you compost? You’re all trying to be sustainable, right? You could be composting your lunch food waste.” We were confused – compost? Here? In our office? She said we could do vermiculture composting, to which we replied: Isn’t that worms? Since Katie was new, we told her “we simply don’t do that, it’s dirty, it could be smelly, it could be hard to maintain, the janitors wouldn’t understand, and it’s probably breaking some very important office hygiene rule” (I don’t remember all of the reasons we came up with, but the list became extensive). Katie was adamant that we tried it though and we gave in under the condition that she’d take full responsibility for it.
Soon after, Katie brought it a small red bin and placed it next to our garbage, and recycling, and instructed us to simply place our food waste on the top of the soil inside. For a month or two, Katie took care of the compost bin, and it didn’t create a stench or mess. Soon, I became curious and asked Katie to show me what she was doing to take care of the compost. We got down on our knees and Katie showed me how she buried the food with the big serving spoon we kept nearby, and she explained how turning it regulated the dryness or wetness of the compost bin. Soon after, I was taking care of the worms in our office.  Before I knew it, the worms were multiplying, and she invited me to take some worms home to begin composting on my own!
For months, even after Katie left for her Fulbright (this is how smart she is), our office and I continued composting. The CERTs office still composts (though they now can take advantage of organic collection on campus). I, on the other hand, have stopped. I moved to a new apartment, and maybe it was the stress of the move, the new roommate or the new kitchen, but I stopped and gave my worms away. I could have started composting outside at my new place – there was a patio and backyard, but didn’t know how and didn’t take the time to figure it out.
After all the work and support I had to compost, I failed to re-apply those lessons and knowledge to continue this sustainable practice. I stopped composting and haven’t started again. To the individual advocating for greater organic composting, I have failed.

At this point in the presentation, I switch modes to show how even the most curated behavior can still fail due to a number of unpredictable factors.  If I, someone motivated, knowledgeable, and even invested in sustainability professionally, can’t do it – think of the magnitude of the challenge for the average person.  This is why it’s important to tell your failure story.  

Behavior change isn’t a wand to wave over a problem, it’s something with which we all struggle…we’re all in it together.  Once we realize that, we can approach our initiatives with a fresh understanding of the challenge, open ourselves to any barriers that could exist, and practice the empathy that is necessary to design a program that reaches us where we need it.  Tell your story, realize that you’re part of it too…and you’ll find that’s precisely where you need to be to nudge that change.

Coming soon…my success story…!

Lighting Poll Results: Enlightening?

A few weeks ago, I posted a poll trying to get feedback on what kind of barriers people are experiencing with switching to efficient lighting options in their home.  At CERTs, we’re trying to build the most helpful information and decision-making tools.  Additionally, CBSM prefers a rigorous study of barriers, but I wanted to see what kind of potential a poll like this held for getting feedback about a behavior.  

I concede that ‘changing to efficient lighting’ is not a non-divisive action, meaning that the feedback would include barriers to switching to CFLs (compact fluorescent lights), LEDs (light-emitting diodes), choosing lighting, etc.  The poll, however, met people where they were in their lighting experience.  Some had switched to CFLs and had mixed reviews, others switched to CFLs and back again, some were going straight to LEDs.  I sent the poll out via my blog via Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.  I also made special posts to several LinkedIn network groups, ranging from energy professionals to general networking groups

Here are the simple poll results: Continue reading

Armed and Ready: CBSM Vancouver Workshop Recap

November 1-4, I attended the Introductory and Advanced Workshops for Community-Based Social Marketing, led by Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr.  The first two days really hit home that CBSM is a process, and one that really is defined by the first two steps: 1) Deciding on a Behavior to Target and 2) Analyzing the Barriers and Benefits through Research.  For many, myself included, CBSM brought to light the power that norms, diffusion, and other social psychology concepts have on our behavior.  It was easy to revel in this new understanding and de-emphasize the first two steps when I first learned about CBSM.  My thought has really shifted in terms of what CBSM is and how to go about it.

The last two days, the Advanced Workshop, we went more in-depth on existing research for the CBSM method and use of different social marketing tools for specific research-based barriers.  Continue reading

Research-based approaches to achieve behavior change in your community

For the last two days, I’ve attended Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s (DMM) Introductory Workshop on Community-Based Social Marketing.  DMM went through the process of behavior identification and delineation; barrier and benefit analysis; tools to overcome those barriers; and pilot structures.  Over 16 hours, we heard case studies and stories from research and practitioners implementing CBSM strategies, often to great success.  From the last two days:

  • I understand how importance of the details of this approach in helping communities meet their impact goals.  With limited resources, we can’t afford to just guess when there’s so much information out there already about what does and does not work.  I see what we sacrifice when we take shortcuts in program planning and design, and how I can help minimize those shortcomings.
  • I have gained confidence in my understanding of this process (that social marketing is a process, not just an approach) so that I can better communicate what CBSM can achieve but what is necessary to make that happen.  And I am more confident that a broader range of communities can be using this approach to enhance the effectiveness of their programs.
  • I am more rehearsed in explaining my fellowship objectives to other practitioners and how my fellowship work and my CERTs work are related to one another.  I also feel more comfortable talking about and asking questions about the role community can play throughout the CBSM process, and the benefits that can come from that.
  • I gained helpful information about what I need to include and explain in presentations about CBSM.  I also found great resources that I can use to help guide any workshops or consulting with communities wanting to use these powerful tools.
  • I feel armed with more resources in terms of relationships with practitioners (in many different fields, something that Doug stressed) and studies and case study examples of CBSM at work.

I’m really looking forward to the next two days of the Advanced workshop.  I look forward to visit with others that have some experience so far with CBSM and to gain more insight about not only presenting CBSM to MN communities and groups but facilitating them through the process of learning about and applying CBSM to their own work and goals in their community.

A call for Questions! Workshopping with CBSM’s author, Dr. McKenzie-Mohr

This is a call for questions, inquiries, and ideas!  I am en route to four days of presentation and workshopping with Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr at the Richmond Cultural Centre in Vancouver, BC.  Dr. McKenzie-Mohr is the author of Fostering Sustainable Behavior, a book that outlines the steps of developing a Community-Based Social Marketing initiative.  Please comment with things you’d like me to ask about or think about as I attend what I expect to be an eye-opening week! Continue reading