Activating Transformative Change for Sustainability to Take Hold within a Business

Leyla Acaroglu
Disruptive Design
Published in
15 min readSep 14, 2022


Excerpt from Part 2 of my New Guidebook: Swivel to Sustainability: A Guidebook to Full Systems Business Transformation

Now available to purchase here as a digital ebook (while the physical book will be available in a few weeks).

On the 1st of September, I launched my new guidebook on activating transformative change in business. It’s a how-to guide for anyone working in or for a company on moving from business-as-usual to sustainability with a setup for regeneration.

I already shared an excerpt from Part 1 on the foundations of sustainability; in this article, I’m sharing an excerpt from Part 2, which is entirely focused on mastering transformative change within an organizational context. Why? Because activating full systems sustainability is entirely about designing and building change within an organization, but also in relation to the systems around it and the people who engage with the products and services offered. The following insights focus on limiting forces and ways to overcome them.

Cultures of Change

Change is all about transformation.

Therefore, to make change is to facilitate transformational experiences that move from one state to another. But change is also constant, and at times, unpredictable.

Sustainability is also about change — changes to the way businesses operate, the product designs, value chain relationships, material choices, business models, company culture and customer engagement. At the base of any physical and material changes is cultural change, which influences mindsets and behaviors.

To be successful in transitioning away from the linear business-as-usual model (discussed on page 51) to a more sustainable and circular one, you must start with shifting organizational culture so that your company has strong values that permeate throughout the organization.

Innovation is also all about change, and the companies that embrace a dynamic culture focused on transformation benefit from their own self disruption.

From a systems perspective, change is dynamic. Each change that’s made, in turn, changes the other aspects of the world, and ultimately, micro changes add up to have bigger impacts on the planet through the things that we choose to do (or not to do). Thus, actions add up to impacts both as individuals and as members of an organization.

That’s the power of intentionally creating positive change and taking purposeful actions to transform away from unsustainable actions.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” - Socrates

Is change hard?

People often declare that change is hard when they want to avoid doing something or when they feel threatened by the changes happening around them, usually as they are not seeing the immediate change that they desire or because they are fearful of what the change will bring.

In 500 BC, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus talked about change as a “universal flux.” He said, “The only constant in life is change,” and, “Stability is an illusion.” If change is constant as Heraclitus said, then it is also chaotic — “an inescapable paradox, yet a beautiful necessity, critical to all life.”

Rigidity and inflexible thinking makes things challenging. It causes an issue when people get stuck in thinking paradigms despite the world changing around them.

Although change is constant, it’s in our human nature to experience resistance when change happens. As you begin to apply new frames in your organization to create different processes and enact full systems sustainability, you’ll inevitably encounter people who are not on board, whether they’re people who want to maintain the status quo or those who resist the fact that customers want more sustainable products and ethical companies.

So, before blazing into organizational transformation, it’s valuable to uncover the pre-existing perceptions as well as the cognitive biases and cultural barriers that limit change. This way you can start by planning ahead for how you can help your organization overcome barriers and grow together toward a better way of operating.

Depending on where you are in your organization’s hierarchy, you may also experience resistance from the top. Power is obviously a major factor when designing a change process. Identifying your sphere of influence and creating a plan for activating more of your agency will enable you to effectively apply the strategies and tactics outlined in this guidebook.

Agency: Your capacity to exert power through an action or intervention that produces a particular effect. A personal awareness of your ability to exert influence on the world.

Sphere of Influence: Your ability to affect change grows based on your efforts to expand your skills, capabilities and experiences in making change; it’s connected to the networks and community you speak to and interact with.

Human Nature and Barriers to Change

To better overcome resistance to organizational change, it’s important to have a baseline understanding of why humans get uncomfortable with change.

Here we’ll explore some high-level concepts related to social norms, biases, the status quo and human habits before diving into how to identify and overcome the unique challenges your organization may face when embracing a change toward sustainability.

Social Norms: Informal understandings of “appropriate” social behaviors that subtly govern our lives and societies. Norms differ from place to place, but they have similar impacts by providing the social cues of what is expected and rewarded in a person’s behavior in order for them to fit in with that community or society.

These are things like, if and what kind of cutlery you use to eat, how you greet a stranger or whether you take your shoes off as soon as you walk into someone’s house. Social norms can be explicit (obvious) or implicit (unspoken), and they often transfer between people in subtle ways through social cues of what is deemed appropriate or not. Social norms are often pervasive and work to control or change culture because we have an innate desire to be socially accepted by those around us; thus, we replicate the status quo in order to fit in.

This plays out in company culture as well. If it’s deemed okay to make jokes about exploitation in the supply chain, or if the social norm is to ensure that ethics is built into every decision — these can all be seeded and encouraged by good policies and practices, as well as leaders and the agents that exist within the community.

Social Contagion: Richard Dawkins is the author of the book “The Selfish Gene”. It first proposed the idea of a meme in 1976, before internet culture took it on. Dawkins proposed that social contagion is like a virus that infects people. We “catch” ideas and behaviors from each other, which results in the rapid uptake of certain trends and the disregard of others — as well as how we see social change happen in any direction, be it desirable or not.

Since we are influenced by others around us, we learn how to reinforce what has come before from the people we interact with; unless we actively challenge what we are taught, we become the replicators of the status quo (Giddens, 1984). This is how unsustainability gets embedded into company culture (and society), as we “catch” and replicate social norms.

Being willing to challenge and rewrite organizational norms is one of the cornerstones of creating a successful sustainability change initiative.

Reflect on any unsustainable cultural norms that exist within you organization. How have they been replicated over time, and what changes would work to challenge them effectively?

Cognitive Bias: Biases are mistakes in reasoning and cognitive decision making. We all have them, and there are hundreds of cognitive biases that affect us in very similar ways. From confirmation bias (where we seek out information that reinforces what we already believe) to optimism bias (where we believe that bad things don’t happen to us specifically) through to sunk cost (where it’s hard for us to give up on something we have invested in), these shared neurological faults greatly affect our willingness to accept new information, embrace diversity or make change.

Status Quo Bias: One downside of the norm-seeking aspect of human behavior is a propensity toward sameness over diversity, resulting in a status quo bias, which is a desire to maintain the current state at all costs. This is often one of the major barriers to change within organizations. Those that have benefitted from maintaining the status quo are often those who have the power to ignite change; thus, they need to overcome their own bias to help facilitate change.

Cognitive Dissonance: This is another neurological issue that we all share, whereby there is a gap between what we say we will do and what we think we will do in a given situation. Dissonance is often experienced as a discomfort when two modes of thought or values are confronted and contradict each other. We want to feel consistency in our beliefs, so when cognitive dissonance is experienced, people often change their opinions instead of their behaviors to avoid the discomfort.

Neurochemical Rewards: The human brain is wired to secrete a cocktail of chemicals that motivate or alter behaviors. Positive rewards chemicals include serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. The stress hormone is cortisol. Different neurochemicals affect us in different ways, but generally we are rewarded for replicating social norms, whereas stress is triggered when we are outside of cultural conventions.

Forces that limit change

Over the years of working to effect change toward sustainability, I have identified three major forces that limit change within an organization: framing, fear and fatigue.

By reflecting and identifying if and how these three F’s affect you and your organization, you can design ways to overcome them.


Humans think in unconscious structures called frames to help interpret the world around them. They are a bundle of associations that can be evoked or pulled out of your brain’s filing cabinet through language. Once triggered, the associations create a framed lens through which you see the world or interpret information.

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and philosopher who wrote a seminal handbook on framing called “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” (2004). He explains how frames shape perception and that political leaders and mass communicators use frames to create moral panics by evoking emotional reactions through the use of metaphors that help coerce society.

Lakoff also explains issues with how we frame the environment when it comes to climate change: “…Environmental frames are the (typically unconscious) conceptual structures that people have in their brain circuitry to understand environmental issues. Frames are communicated via language and visual imagery. The right language is absolutely necessary for communicating ‘the real crisis’. However, most people do not have the overall background system of frames needed to understand ‘the real crisis’; simply providing a few words and slogans can at best help a very little,”(Lakoff, 2010).

Frames often limit the way someone perceives something, as the brain subconsciously evokes frames, which come in connected systems. Thus, when we encounter an idea, term, concept, etc., we not only get the defining frame, but we also get the entire system that connects to that frame — i.e. when someone hears the word “environment” or “sustainability”, it evokes the immediate mental reference that person holds (which may be positive or negative, and often involves recycling, eco-friendly, tree-hugging, etc.). This will draw on all the associated concepts and images the person has absorbed over time that are connected to the main frame.

Frames can unite and divide people, create action or result in avoidance. Connected to social norms and biases, they can exist in our thoughts, in our interpersonal communication and in political/mass media communication.

Frames also draw on our schemas. A cognitive method of structuring and organizing information that creates patterns of thought assigned to parts of the world to help make sense of it; schemas are often evoked through language.

To add an additional layer to this, frames are connected to the emotional center of the brain, so a frame will also draw an emotional response (even if mild) and cloud the way someone perceives the issue being discussed.

For the last few decades, environmental issues have often been communicated through negative, fear-inducing or fluffy feel-good ways. As a result, many of the frames people hold today about the environment, sustainability and social issues draw on negative or outdated ideas about “doing the right thing”. This is especially true in relation to business. When triggered, they can have the counterproductive effect of limiting interest, and thus, reducing creativity and motivation toward engaging and addressing the issues (Nisbet, 2009).


Fear kicks into gear to protect us from perceived threats, which is why it’s such a powerful tool often leveraged by politicians. Fear is part of our evolutionary defense system. Triggered by perceived threats, fear can often be irrational.

Fear can be a nagging or gripping thing; it eats away at us or strikes us with such intensity that we jump from our chairs, scream or run for our lives. It’s an incredibly effective motivator to get us to avoid the things we don’t want to deal with. If you are terrified of public speaking, then I bet you avoid a stage. We avoid things that make us feel bad, and fear triggers the stress hormone cortisol. Fears have different effects on us — they can paralyze us or ignite a fire inside that drives us to take action.

Fear-Based Manipulation: Fear is often effectively leveraged to get support for politically-motivated acts like wars or public policy implementation. Moral panics are sometimes used to activate a sense of urgency. Fear is also an easy, well-trodden target for marketers and spin doctors. All humans are cognitively wired for personal and in-group survival, so issuing threats against us and our clan helps to either motivate or disable action, depending on the way the messages trigger your particular neurological reactions.

The content used to communicate climate change is steeped in a kind of fear that often turns to denial.

Even people who would say they believe in climate change have a nifty little set of unconscious brain tricks that reinforce a lack of urgency for action. There are two things playing out here: optimism bias and solutions aversion.

Optimism Bias: The safety net our brains need to get by each and every day of our lives; it’s the “everything is going to be just fine” switch that we flick on when a fearful fact is encountered.

The brain goes to great cognitive lengths to craft a narrative of self-preservation so that your future will be fine. Thinking something like, “I have got this under control. It might be bad, but it won’t be that bad for me,” helps to alleviate the stress hormone cortisol that is triggered by fear. If we didn’t have these types of brain tricks, none of us would get in airplanes after one crashes!

Solutions Aversion: A fascinating case of brain trickery where people opt out of believing in a proposed solution when the solution does not affirm their current ideological perspective.

To add to this cocktail of subconscious brain biases playing out, there is another bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It’s named after the two behavioral economists who uncovered it, and it states that people never actually know what they don’t know because people who don’t know something often rate themselves higher on aptitude of that arena than those who do actually have knowledge on it. Thus, they avoid exposing themselves to the information that would allow them to gain knowledge to know what they didn’t know before!

Deniers have a set of neurological hiccups working to prevent acquiring new information that would support the changes needed to contribute to solving the problem.


It can be exhausting having to learn new things, battle overwhelming power structures or cycle through countless rounds of innovations.

Fatigue often plays out as a limiting force in transformation of a sustainable business because there is one person or a small group tasked with turning an incredibly large ship around. They are often under-resourced, sidelined or given hugely complex tasks within tight time frames.

When someone is fatigued, their ability to think creatively and divergently is limited. Likewise, their focus and decision-making are much harder, and in general, motivation and participation dwindles.

Fatigue can come about as a result of physical or mental exhaustion. It can make people easily irritated or frustrated. When fatigued due to overwork or over exposure to a topic that is cognitively difficult to comprehend, there is likely to be a drop in morale and willingness to participate.

The best remedy for fatigue is the right resources from the start. This includes not only your standard timeframe and financial resources but also the best human resources. It’s often a pointless endeavor to task a group with say, finding a new product design solution, but then not having the best quality experts on the team or consultants to help ensure that the sustainability criteria can be met.

Fatigue can also be brought about through a lack of hope as a result of constant exposure to negative concepts about the future. There is no shortage of media coverage on the extreme weather events and catastrophic predictions of climate change. Since this adds up to ‘topic fatigue’, people naturally start to feel anxiety and stress as a result of the negative framing (Schumann, 2018).

Checking in with your team about any anxieties they have will open up a dialogue for a more constructive conversation about the reality of the crises we face.

Additionally, pre-planning to avoid burn-out for teams working to tackle these big complex problems will ensure that they maintain motivation and creativity.

Reflect on how fatigue might be limiting the capacity of your team or organization in successfully effecting change. What additional resources will alleviate this?

Throughout the Guidebook, there are 30 activities including reflections, workshop ideas and worksheets. Here is a sample of the one for this section on the limiting forces:

Activating Organizational Change

All management teams getting started or expanding a sustainability initiative should understand and know how to enact effective organizational change in ways that don’t foster or fuel resentment or inertia.

Any change is fundamentally about altering the status quo, which is bound to affect the pre-established equilibrium and thus bring about a short period of instability. This is why change initiatives are often met with resistance.

The key to success in organizational change is a mix of:

• Open dialogue (to reframe the challenges as opportunities)

• Collaboration (ensuring processes are co-created)

• Motivation (designing incentive structures to create conditions for creativity).

People want to feel like they have agency in the process and that any grievances are heard and respected.

Bright Spots: Likewise, you should celebrate the small wins and highlight the bright spots of success to establish the new normal, but be mindful of over-celebrating insignificance, as this can then create a sense of premature accomplishment that could restrict further action.

Co-creation: A way of inviting a process of change with your key stakeholders, rather than dictating it. Consider how you can invite different groups to be involved in the development and delivery of your change initiative. Ensure that everyone has a voice and opportunity to express their fears or concerns so that these can be addressed rather than dismissed.

Co-creation is about working through the uncomfortable aspects of not knowing how the future will be and being willing to have diversity of thoughts in the innovation process.

If you are going to opt for a big ambitious change all at once, make sure that you have implementation stages in place to ensure that the big goal is achievable.

Many companies get caught making big claims, like achieving ‘100% carbon neutral by 2030’, going fully recyclable, etc. and forget that they need a way to achieve that goal by starting right away. They will also need a team with the technical skills to deliver on the goals and get full buy-in from the entire company.

Designed and delivered in an inviting and considerate way, many people welcome well-planned and timely change initiatives, especially if there is a pent-up demand for it — which when it comes to values, climate actions and social equity, there is a significant demand from workers through to customers.

Read more! Get the handbook here

Want to learn more about how to activate positive change in your organization? There are a few places left for the upcoming Live Online Disruptive Design Method Masterclass, happening this October 3–31, 2022! In March 2023 I am running a leadership training in the content from the book, you can apply here.

Or, you can purchase the digital Guidebook bundled with our 4-Week Sustainability in Business Sprint for rapid activation >



Leyla Acaroglu
Disruptive Design

UNEP Earth Champ, Designer, Sociologist, Sustainability & Circular Provocateur, TED Speaker, Founder:, &