‘If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ Often misattributed to quotesman extraordinaire Mark Twain, the original quote is from Abraham Kaplan in 1964 (1).

Popularised by Abraham Maslow in 1966 and now widely known as ‘law of the instrument’ or Maslow’s hammer (1), the saying describes our tendency to rely too much on familiar tools.

Even training, the favourite tool in my environment and sustainability toolbox, is not always the solution to an identified performance problem, and this explains why trainers put so much emphasis on needs assessment. Needs assessment is a process of investigating the nature and causes of performance issues in order to identify the best solution or solutions – which may or may not include training.

The question of whether workplace-based environment and sustainability training is the solution to the problem first comes up at a very high level needs assessment:

  • yes, every organisation – be it business, government or nonprofit – needs to play an active role in accelerating the transition to a decarbonized economy in which people and the environment really count; and
  • no, not every organisation will need to formally train all its staff to help them play their role in this exciting transition –
  • but every sector will need trained people to help roll out the changes in workplace practice that will get us there.

How does that all fit together?

I’ve been developing a simple matrix to help organisations work out if environment and sustainability training is the right tool for them and, if not, what other tools in the toolbox they would need to use. Because, yes, that’s right folks – we won’t all need the ’training hammer’ but we will all most definitely need to use some of the many other tools in the environment and sustainability toolbox.

But first – exactly what is training?

People use a lot of vague terms, so in my book I define training as (2):

‘… the acquisition of work-related knowledge, skills and practices that will improve a specified aspect of on-the-job performance in observable and/or measurable ways as defined by clear and achievable performance standards and/or outcomes. A core principle is that of fairness: people need to know exactly what is expected of them, and this is especially true in a regulatory context’.

To work out when training is needed and who needs training, I find Charles Handy’s analysis of companies’ management errors (3) applies equally well to deficits in environment and sustainability management:

  • Type 1 Errors are where we can get it wrong e.g. illegal discharges to water, soil or air– these tend to be a focus for organisations working in a high risk/strong environmental compliance context
  • Type 2 Errors are where we don’t get it as right as we could e.g. carbon intensity. These tend to be more of a focus in a lower compliance context – except of course that climate change poses a very high risk to all of us, so we need to start getting this very right as of right now – and ahead of regulatory demands which, make no mistake, will be coming!

The matrix below is a first draft of my thinking about where environment and sustainability training (as defined above) is needed, to reduce the risk posed by these management errors.

Where in the matrix would you plot your organisation’s training needs?

Questions to consider when you are plotting your organisation’s training needs in the matrix include:

  • Do you work in a sector where your environment and/or sustainability performance comes under a compliance regime? Consider things like risk management, company reporting, internal and/or external audits and/or certifications, regulatory inspections.
  • Is your organisation big enough to have its own Human Resources/Learning and Development team? If not, then consider your firm to be a ‘small’ company.
  • Do you have specialist environment and sustainability staff who can deliver training to other people in the company who need it? If so, you are probably in or towards the right-hand quadrants.
  • Do you rely on environment and sustainability training being provided through other agencies such as industry or professional/trade associations, tertiary or vocational training institutions, third party certifiers or government environmental bodies for training? If so, you are probably in or towards the left-hand quadrants.
  • Can the problem be solved by a solution other than training? Examples include automated energy-saving lighting systems and other supportive infrastructure.
  • Are you a government or vocational training body, or a nonprofit? If so, classify yourselves according to your environment and sustainability aspects and impacts1, for example from your offices, transport and operational activities.

Regardless of whether formal staff training is needed, we all need to use the other tools in the environment and sustainability toolbox to make sure we address Type 2 as well as Type 1 Errors.

The cloud diagram below, adapted from a very useful paper by McKinsey (4), shows just some of the tools we can use and approaches we can take to help our organisation and our sector become more sustainable.

Looking at the matrix and the cloud diagram, ask yourself:

  • What internal training are you already delivering and what external training are your staff currently receiving?
  • Where do your organisation’s training needs fit in the matrix?
  • What other tools from the environment and sustainability communications toolbox are you using to support the training you’re doing in-house, or to support the development and delivery of training for your sector as a whole?
  • What internal or external performance standards or benchmarks are you using to support your organisation’s environment and sustainability initiatives?
  • What other tools like ISO standards or other third party verification systems and supports are you using?
  • How will this analysis influence what you do next?

Carrying out this kind of analysis will help you decide which tools to use on your part of our shared journey to a more equitable and sustainable world.

Links and references

Click here to download a pdf of this blog with a blank matrix and an accompanying key so you can work with your colleagues to plot where you are in the training needs matrix.

    1. ‘I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.’ Abraham Kaplan (1964). The Conduct of Enquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co. p. 28. Find out more about ‘the law of the instrument’ at
    2. Clare Feeney (2013) How to Change the World: a practical guide to successful environmental training programs. Global Professional Publishing (now Stylus). See
    3. Tessa Basford and Bill Schaninger (2016) Four building blocks of change. McKinsey Quarterly April 2016. Read the article and see the diagram at–of-change?cid=other-eml-alt-mkq-mck-oth-1607
    4. Charles Handy (1998) Beyond Certainty: The changing worlds of organizations. Harvard Business Review Press.Click here to download a copy of this blog including the matrix, so you can work with others in your organisation to identify where your training needs lie.

    What is ISO and what are environmental aspects and impacts?

    In its environmental standard ISO 14001:2004, ISO, the International Standards Organisation defines the three components of ‘environmental aspects and impacts’ as follows:

    • ‘environment’ is the surroundings in which an organization operates, including air, water, land, natural resources, flora, fauna, humans, and their interrelation
    • an environmental aspect is an element of an organization’s activities or products or services that can interact with the environment
    • an environmental impact is any change to the environment, whether adverse or beneficial, wholly or partially resulting from an organization’s environmental aspects.



    Many thanks to my wonderful friends, family and colleagues who gave me such helpful feedback on my first draft of this thinking!


Clare Feeney is a consultant, author and speaker on business, economics and the environment.

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