Reflections on my year as a Sustainability Fellow: Active listening for a climate resilient MIT

MIT News Office

Reflections on my year as a Sustainability Fellow: Active listening for a climate resilient MIT

When I started the MIT Sloan MBA program in the fall of 2017, I promised myself that I would be an active member not just of the Sloan community but of the MIT community as a whole. I wanted to make a unique contribution by building a bridge between Sloan and an Institute-wide initiative. As an aspiring organizational leader with a deep personal commitment to sustainability, I applied for the Sustainability Fellowship at the MIT Office of Sustainability (MITOS). Fortunately, I got the job.

As the Sustainability Fellow for Climate Resiliency, I support MITOS, the MIT Office of Emergency Management (OEM), and other campus stakeholders in developing a strategy to make the Institute resilient to climate hazards in the twenty-first century and beyond. MIT is not alone in this effort. Universities across the country are developing their own climate resiliency strategies. Many of us are grappling with scientific uncertainty about the timing and severity of climate hazards, integrating efforts to manage both short and long-term climate risks, and contemplating changes to longstanding operational norms.  

When I came on board, I was eager to understand how a campus as complex as MIT was tackling these challenges and what other campuses could learn from MIT’s experience. With encouragement from my managers at MITOS and OEM, I set out to develop a method to gather insights from a diverse set of campus stakeholders, from Facilities to Campus Planning to the Office of Insurance.

What had we learned in the two and a half years since MIT launched the five-year Plan for Action on Climate Change to reduce and manage the risks of a changing climate? How were we moving the needle on organizational change to achieve our goal of climate resiliency?

I was riding a wave of excitement after working on an action learning project in my Organizational Processes class, in which we studied a change initiative at a local agtech company. The project left me eager to transfer the skills I had learned in class to study a change initiative at my home institution.

I developed an easily replicable evaluation method that is grounded in the principles of active listening and continuous improvement.

Here is what we did, step-by-step:

Campus stakeholders responded positively to being interviewed by a graduate student fellow. I was at once a student invested in helping my campus thrive and an outside observer removed from daily campus operations. After conducting fourteen interviews from December 2017 to January 2018, my managers and I were able to quickly share back our findings to the MIT Climate Resiliency Committee at the end of March. We thanked the stakeholders for their contribution, reported back proposed process improvements in response to the interview findings, and solicited commitment from the Committee to help implement these improvements.

So, what did we learn?

I saw for myself how complex organizational change is, but it was clear that progress is possible when stakeholders from all levels of the organization are both heard and active in leading the change from where they sit. I also learned just how critical it is to build and maintain momentum. Doing so requires striking the right balance between sufficient data collection and timely decision-making.

We learned about what’s going well with campus climate resiliency planning at MIT.

  • There is universal buy-in, motivation and enthusiasm for a climate resilient MIT capable of fulfilling its mission. This motivation is grounded in the strong alignment of incentives between Campus Planning and Construction, Facilities, the Office of Insurance, MITOS, and the Institute’s senior leadership.

  • It is helpful to have the Office of Sustainability (MITOS) play a key facilitator role in mobilizing participation, scheduling meetings, and maintaining meaningful touch points with key stakeholders for whom climate resiliency planning is not their full-time job.

We also learned about what could be improved – this has helped MITOS and other campus stakeholders discuss how to prioritize their efforts. Areas for further exploration include:

  • More concrete scientific findings to inform investment in resiliency measures. Decision-makers require robust scientific data for action. Resiliency planning is a multivariable equation, and trying to plan in a non-static environment can be challenging.

  • Timely and clear setting and management of expectations for roles, responsibilities and time commitment within and across stakeholder groups as they unify their efforts to make one climate resilient MIT.

We also heard some lessons for other campuses developing a campus climate resiliency strategy.

  • Listen! Who are your stakeholders? How are they organized? What do they care about? What risks do they see? Take the time to listen before launching into action.

  • There is no cookie-cutter solution for making a campus resilient. Every campus faces its own set of climate risks and operates with its own set of organizational processes.    

  • Climate resiliency planning needs an owner, a home, to coordinate the integration scientific or engineering research with operational decision-making.

  • Holding regular meetings and building personal relationships are key to getting buy-in from diverse stakeholders.

  • Senior decision-makers want to see actionable findings, not all of the underlying raw data. What’s more important is that they understand and trust the research.

  • Remember that universities are not islands – bring local government and business into the conversation where there are opportunities for collaboration.

The path to campus climate resiliency is one of organizational change management. To move the needle, we need to listen first – and then listen again, and again.   


Faina is a MBA Candidate at MIT Sloan School of Management


This article was republished with permission from the MIT News Office.