Courtesy IDEO

Over the course of the UN Climate Change Conference, or COP27, which came to a close on Friday, one of the central questions that emerged was: How can businesses transform their practices to meet climate goals?

For answers, we reached out to Bryan Walker, a partner and managing director at global design firm IDEO, where he leads the Organizational Transformation Center of Excellence. Increasingly, adapting to what Walker calls “the climate era” has been a focal point of his team’s work. “Organizations are going to have to transform in order to transform their industries to match the challenges and opportunities of this era,” he says, much like the internet transformed the way we do business.

We spoke with him about how organizations can rethink their product and talent strategies for the climate era. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

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You argue that the climate era isn’t just a restraint, but also an opportunity. Are there examples of companies that have shifted their mindsets in that way?

We collaborated with Ford on the F-150 Lightning, the electric version of the F-150 pickup truck. Often the mindset with green products is, ‘We’re going to take our product and we’re going to make it green.’ Inherent in that mindset is defining success as just as good as the original one. Well with the F-150 Lightning, we decided that we weren’t going to create an electrified version of F-150 or a green F-150. We’re going to create a better truck.

We took a human-centered design approach, where we spent time with a lot of F-150 drivers to understand their real needs. Then we began to imagine, ‘Now if it’s electric, how can we address those needs even better?’ We ended up with all kinds of features, like the ability to take down the tailgate and plug in your power tools to turn it into a workbench. The F-150 Lightning is much more connected as a vehicle. It can light up its surroundings 360 degrees.

All of these features make it a better truck, but they’re features that you could not have had unless it was electric. Once that came out, it became a proof point. It was evidence that we can create better products, not just create green products.

How can leaders apply this same mindset to talent?

More and more, climate is becoming a core component of any organization’s talent strategy. If you’re going to attract and retain top talent, employees want to see that you actually care about climate.

So how do you do that? This one’s not rocket science. First, build greater employee awareness and engagement around it. A lot of that is helping people see how climate fits into not only the business and purpose of the organization, but also their individual roles.

Another strategy is upskilling, which starts with baseline climate-change awareness. Then, depending on specialties, it goes more and more technical in certain areas. The trick there is to minimize the jargon because that seems to be where sustainability becomes inaccessible. Another strategy is to depoliticize addressing climate, which gets at language.

A final strategy is flip-skilling, or having employees apply their relevant skills from existing roles to new roles that will address the climate crisis. We don’t have a ton of time to meet the climate challenges ahead, so we have to be pretty quick about shifting the workforce to lean into them. What are the technical skills you have and the competencies you have today and how do they apply to a role or an approach that is actually pro-climate?

Can you say more about depoliticizing climate and using language to get more employees and consumers on board?

We do a fair amount of work in the food industry, and one classic example of using language to frame climate challenges in a more accessible way is to talk about extreme weather, not climate change. These trigger words are audience and industry specific, but that gives you an idea.

What change-management advice do you have for leaders who are trying to bring their workforce along with them to take action?

With transformation in general, but particularly with climate, people have to see it in order to believe it—and believe in it. That’s the first step of transformation: helping more people see it so they can begin to believe it. It’s one thing when it’s an abstract argument in a presentation, but show me what it actually looks like. Make it tangible instead of using pie charts and bullet points filled with buzzwords. Show me what the future looks like, how our organization will show up differently, and show me a first proof point or two that we can actually pull it off. Give me a beacon of that first project or two that has come to life and is putting us on that trajectory.

Then I can really believe it. I can see that end destination, and I can see the first steps that have actually happened. That’s how you can begin to build momentum around the change. It’s not easy, and unfortunately, I think too many people try to skip over this step, but that would be my advice.

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