Mistakes are the Compost for Growth and Learning

Mistakes are crucially important to entrepreneurs. When you’re working on something new, it’s normal for things to go wrong. The only real failure is the failure to learn from what happens. Life experiences – which inevitably include mistakes – are the best teacher.

Some programs encourage entrepreneurs to write business plans and go the bank right away for financing.  Those business plans are often pure fiction.  When you don’t really know the business yet, you make uninformed plans.  Entrepreneurship is really adult learning.  You need to have a learning plan that includes actually putting your ideas into action when you start a new business – this is much more important than a plan written to please a banker.

A traditional business plan gives a framework but you need real world experience, mistakes and interpersonal input to flesh it out.  When you start to try making and selling a product or providing a service to clients, that’s when the real learning starts and the knowledge/resource/skill gaps become apparent and the truth of the business starts to appear.  Mistakes are upsetting and can be costly – but if they arise from really trying out a part of your business idea, they can be the best education for entrepreneurs.

Several weeks ago I was at the weekly Sustainable Biz Lunch at Green Garage in Detroit and a colleague told the story of working with two entrepreneurs. They had been through a 12-week business incubator program and had developed an 82-page business plan with beautiful charts and spreadsheets.  After a bit he asked them, “what business do you want to be in?” – and they looked at each other and had no answer.  It was never possible for that business plan to grow into a business.  It was a glittery framework and you could hang lots of ornaments on it like a Christmas tree – but it never got down to the truth.  Without the truth, we cannot make progress.  The heart of the business is missing.

A different way to grow a business is to start small, working in a garage or spare room and use your own funds to start doing/making something.  When you try to sell in the marketplace – you run head-on into reality and the true strengths and weaknesses of your ideas and plans will emerge.  You get to know the good, the bad and the ugly about yourself and the marketplace.  By identifying the mistakes and weaknesses in your plans, your business becomes stronger and more grounded.  This knowledge is invaluable and is the compost to needed to nourish a growing business.

A good learning experience invites people into the truth.  Many times our biggest dose of truth comes from the mistakes we make along the way.

Harriet Greenwood



The Tinker Bell Effect – I believe in…..

Is science a belief system so that belief in science is optional?

Or is science a way of identifying physical truths by collecting data to understand the natural world and to better understand what the future holds?

Do you remember the scene in Peter Pan where Tinker Bell is sick and dying – and Peter asks the audience to believe, really believe in fairies so that Tink can get better? I remember, as a child, being swept away in the magic of that moment – and really believing – knowing that my belief would somehow save Tinker Bell. And the joy when it worked and she recovered!

Some of the rhetoric about climate science or evolution treats science as pure belief. One can opt to believe or not to believe.

When people get on an airplane – there is no request for people to believe in aerodynamics before it can take off. If the plane has been properly engineered and built and the pilot operates it correctly, it will take off and fly. This happens even if the passengers are ignorant of the laws of aerodynamics or don’t believe in physics. The science that enables a plane to fly has been discovered and refined by using scientific methods to observe, measure and explain the physical world, and then using that knowledge to create an airplane that can fly. We don’t ask passengers to clap their hands and believe in airplanes in order for the plane to take off.

The laws of aerodynamics are not perfect. Although they explain much about flight, last I heard aerodynamics could not explain how a bumble bee flies. According to the known principles, bumble bees should not be able to fly, but clearly they can and do fly. It goes to show that one branch of science does not explain everything. Nature still has complexity and some mysteries. But science provides a structure with hypotheses, data collection and analysis to explore and learn more about the natural world. Personally, I believe in science. But things like gravity or aerodynamic lift are just physical truths which exist in the world, whether or not we understand them.

Taking a stand to not believe in climate science has tragic long-term consequences. Knowledge is power – and power for positive change. Ignorance is tragic. Willful ignorance is especially tragic. This is the time for all of us to be aware and use the best information to pull together while there is still time to take action and protect our fragile biosphere.

Is Sustainability Reporting Just Another New Age Fad?

We’re hearing more and more about sustainability and going green.  To the surprise of many, firms that take the time and trouble to prepare sustainability reports often generate higher profits as well.  A 2014 report by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) shows that the attention to detail and long-term planning that accompany reporting also help performance.  https://www.cdp.net/en-US/News/CDP%20News%20Article%20Pages/business-leadership-on-climate-action-financial-profitability.aspx   It seems that wastefulness and pollution are not great financial strategies and don’t help build stable companies.

One important thing about sustainability reports programs such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), is that long-term planning is emphasized and trends which differ from “business as usual” can surface.  These reports provide ways to measure, share and disclose information related to the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit).   Investments in energy saving improvements may not show huge returns in the short-term, but over the long-term savings can be quite significant.  Reducing the use of fossil fuel can also reduce the carbon footprint of a firm, which is highlighted in these reporting platforms.

Sustainability reporting involves measuring and reporting externalities – important things like environmental degradation or human health effects – which do not show up in the calculations of standard financial reports.  If a company is making and selling a lot of its product and generating huge financial profits, but as a side effect is polluting a river and giving off toxic fumes which result in increased asthma and lung diseases – is a financial bottom line enough?  Does the consumer or investor have enough information to choose wisely?  Sustainability reports are a tool that enables the marketplace to differentiate between companies using metrics and information.   Environmental regulations in the US prevent a lot of the worst negative impacts, but plenty of things are not regulated and may fly “below the radar.”

Sustainability is not a fad.  It’s a tool for creating a better future.  These reporting processes are not easy to complete, but can create long-term value for companies that make the effort.

How Competitive is an Ostrich?

Sometimes being competitive means facing the cold, unvarnished truth, painful or not.  Facts are facts and although news can be massaged and slanted, over the long term the truth wins out.  Climate change predictions seem to be coming true.  Extreme weather events are occurring more frequently and often with increased severity.  Ice caps and glaciers are melting at faster rates that scientists thought possible 20 years ago.  Peer reviewed science overwhelming confirms that human-caused global warming is occurring.  But due to many factors, human caused climate change is still hotly debated in headlines and climate change skeptics continue to get air time.  It’s just that sticking our heads in the sand like an ostrich isn’t going to help those of us here in the United States hold onto our edge for innovations and competitive technologies.

Many other countries respect and understand science and see the power of applied research.  Innovators in China, Singapore and other Asian countries are looking at ways for their economies to leapfrog over today’s fossil fuel based energy technologies and go directly to renewables in many applications.  As one example, China and other countries are funding massive research into energy efficiency and sustainability.  Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), one of the leading universities in China, and National University of Singapore (NUS) are collaborating in a program titled Energy and Environmental Sustainability Solutions for Megacities – E2S2.  http://www.nus.edu.sg/neri/E2S2.html  

Just looking at a recent publication of the Energy Studies Institute of the National University of Singapore,  http://www.esi.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/esi-bulletins/volume-7-issue-2-june-2014?sfvrsn=2 ,  I learned that:

  • China is developing a multi-company power generation system and is making plans to transition to a low carbon economy
  • Taiwan is promoting renewable energy to reduce dependence on imported energy and to move toward a “nuclear free homeland.”
  • ASEAN member states have been implementing progressive national actions to promote renewable energy, improve energy efficiency and enhance regional collaboration
  • India has a National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) that includes a solar mission, an enhanced energy efficiency mission, a Green India mission and a mission for strategic knowledge on climate change.  Fossil fuel imports are seen as an energy security issue. 
  • Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) technologies are being developed in Japan with plans to deploy them in China, India and elsewhere
  • Thailand has an Alternative Energy Development Plan which encourages rooftop solar development, among other ideas
  • Germany’s low carbon transition is being studied for applications in Singapore and other Asian countries

Sure China currently uses four times as much coal as the US – and is building more coal plants.  But there are also serious efforts to build a low carbon future.  Maybe not all of these ideas will be implemented – but odds are that some of them will bear fruit and provide starting points for valuable patents and innovations in a low carbon world.   What countries will be seen as innovators and leaders in the future?  Does any of this bode well for the competitive future of US business? 

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”        John F. Kennedy


“If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Henry Ford

Sometimes big leaps in innovation have to be done by a true believer – who doesn’t listen to their customers or conventional wisdom – but sees what is possible even though most people can’t see that far ahead.

Who really wanted a personal computer or a laptop in 1976 when Apple Computer was formed? Who even believed that such a thing was possible or affordable? The electronic gadgetry of modern urban life would have seemed like pure science fiction then – unlikely to ever exist or to be affordable.

Sometimes I try to look at green ideas through that viewpoint. Let go of the economic and technological realities of this year – and imagine what might come to pass in the world of green and sustainability. If we can’t imagine life without the “horse” – how will we ever accomplish the fundamental changes that are needed to move forward?

Part of the change is imagining what could be invented – that a horse-less carriage is possible. But another part of effecting change is to conceptualize and put together systems that are needed to implement new technologies on a society-wide basis. Henry Ford didn’t invent the first automobile – many others came before him. But he did implement an early and economically viable way of manufacturing and marketing cars – and that’s what’s remembered as a watershed that made a major difference.

I think that one of the things that makes green business concepts so overwhelming at times is the breadth and scope of change that’s involved. Changing just one component or one portion isn’t enough. Greening affects the whole system and the entire supply chain. But it starts with envisioning fundamentally different ways to accomplish things. At this point I can’t completely see how we can replace the fossil fuel and other unsustainable “horses” we’re used to, but I keep wondering.

For more about Henry Ford and innovation go to The Henry Ford

Can’t We Just Get Along? ASTM BEPA Standard Promotes Agreement on How to Measure Building Energy Performance

I was recently at the ASTM E50 committee meeting in St Louis. The new Building Energy Performance Assessment (BEPA) standard is coming along fast and its gaining wide acceptance. According to the leader of the BEPA committee, Tony Buonicore, this methodology for collection and assessment of data related to building energy performance has buy-in from a lot of important organizations in the field, including ASHRAE, DOE, EPA and US Green Building Council. They are all agreed that standardizing the rules for collecting data will benefit everyone and help synchronize data collection for standards such as ASHRAE energy conservation standards or Energy Star, sponsored by EPA and DOE.

A lot of the items in the BEPA standard are pretty basic. For example it defines gross floor area, the way to calculate the size of the building. The existing situation is that there are multiple ways to calculate the size of a building. One standard may let you include the square footage of an indoor parking area which another does not. One standard may include the square footage for hallways, closets, stairways and air shafts while another does not. These different definitions can lead to significantly different building size numbers – and since the building square footage is used as the denominator of a key equation (energy use intensity = annual energy consumption ÷ building square footage) – the difference in the square footage number can dramatically affect the result. On the one hand the standard is full of boring and nit-picking details but on the other hand once major organizations agree on a data collection format and get the definitions to agree, a lot of data becomes more meaningful and comparable between different programs going forward.

One of Tony Buonicore’s beefs is that benchmarking efforts for energy performance of commercial buildings have so far been inadequate. Benchmarking is the way that similar types and regions of buildings are compared (for example strip shopping malls in northern climates) and an average or top quartile energy performance number is calculated by comparing the energy use intensity among the buildings in the database. There are just not enough buildings with comparable data entered into existing databases used for benchmarking commercial buildings in the US. I can’t do justice to all Tony’s ideas – so take a look at his whitepaper on benchmarking: http://www.bepinfo.com/images/PDF/BEPNwhitepaper-AB-3-30-10.pdf Although the ASTM BEPA standard won’t solve all the problems with benchmarking by itself, the use of a common data collection standard by many organizations will allow the improvement of benchmarking databases and will encourage stronger benchmarking initiatives.

The business of creating standards is not very exciting. There’s a lot of time spent debating definitions and minutia. But the power of reasonable, widely accepted standards is huge and can benefit a host of energy assessment projects and help measure the value created by improving building energy efficiency.

Harriet Greenwood

How Do You Go Green With Measurable Results in a Time of Creative Chaos and Competing Ideas?

The world of “green” is chaotic and unregulated. Almost anything can pass for “green” and it’s really hard to decide what to do and when to do it. Not to mention that the rules keep changing as new incentives and technologies pop up all the time. The difference between actual green accomplishments and green hype requires measurements and standards. The current state of chaos is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because there is a choice of standards to apply. If you have an overall strategy – you can pick the best standards to support that strategy. There’s freedom to pick what to measure – then make it work. The curse…. well I already discussed that.

The dictionary says that chaos is a state of utter confusion or the inherent unpredictability in the behavior of a natural system such as the atmosphere or boiling water. Another definition is the confused, unorganized state of primordial matter before the creation of distinct forms. The opposite of chaos is cosmos – an orderly harmonious universe – which seems like a lofty but attractive goal.

But what to do? How can you make progress in the midst of chaos? I think that to start with you need a compass and a map. The compass is an appropriate standard to use to point the way and provide a scale of measurements. The map is a strategic plan which sets the priorities and time frame.

Yes I am a geek for standards…. and most of my friends get blank looks on their faces when I start to enthuse about ASTM or ASHRAE or LEED. But I still think that picking and understanding the right standards pack a powerful punch and can start to make sense out of chaos. Once you have your standard or standards – you can start by measuring where you are to begin with – your baseline. It may be possible to benchmark against other similar buildings or businesses by comparing your baseline number to published benchmarking statistics. So now you have some direction about what to do – it’s usually easy to see that some areas need improvement. You have a starting point and a compass!

But how do you go on and move forward? A strategic plan is crucial and then you can grapple with those delightful financial trade-offs. Where are the easy and low-cost items to address? What’s a reasonable timeframe to address them? What’s the wish list and time frame for big-ticket items?

Luckily, more often than not, there are fruitful low-cost ways to start. With a compass and a map there are ways to get creative and chart a sensible path through chaos. When you’re going green the learning never stops as new incentives and technologies keep changing the cost/benefit calculation. It helps to learn to love innovation and chaos – because both are here to stay for a while!

Harriet Greenwood