Over the past decade Collective Next has enjoyed working with Jill Cress who currently serves as Chief Marketing, Brand and Communications Officer of National Geographic Partners. Most recently, we partnered with Jill to design and facilitate a strategic workshop focused on National Geographic’s extraordinary Planet or Plastic initiative. We had the pleasure of talking with Jill and Solution Designer John Colaruotolo about Planet or Plastic and the role of collaboration in making it a success.

Marsha Dunn: What is the Planet or Plastic initiative?

Jill Cress: Planet or Plastic is an ambitious, multi-year, cross-National Geographic effort to educate our audiences and inspire action to reduce, reuse, and recycle single use plastic. We launched the initiative this past June with the goal of reducing the amount of single-use plastic that reaches the ocean. To achieve the objective, we must impact the behaviors of consumers, companies, and institutions through content, tools, and partnerships.

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Marsha: What makes National Geographic uniquely suited to take on this challenge?

Jill: National Geographic represents two companies—the 130-year-old science and education focused nonprofit National Geographic Society and the newer, for-profit purpose-driven media company National Geographic Partners which helps fund the work of the society. With Planet or Plastic, we are marrying the scientific and educational expertise housed in the Society with the incredible reach of National Geographic Partners to get the message out and to create a call to action. It is an effort that represents a true one National Geographic effort that starts with the work of our scientists who are looking at the source of how plastics end up in our oceans and threaten the health of our marine ecosystem.

Marsha: Can you tell us more about the call to action?

Jill: Our goal is to mobilize three different stakeholder groups: consumers, companies, and institutions. Through the power of our stories we are recruiting consumers to make an online pledge to limit single use plastic in their lives with the goal of stopping one billion pieces from making it into the ocean. We’ve already reached 140 million pieces! We are teaming up with other companies to create a consortium committed to putting less plastic in the oceans, whether via innovative science or recycling efforts. Last, we are engaging scientific institutions and NGOs to fill the knowledge gaps needed to drive policy change and to work on wholesale efforts to help limit plastic waste.

Planet or Plastic also prompted us to conduct a company-wide audit around our own use of plastic. Beginning with the June Planet or Plastic issue, all three million magazines published monthly in English are now wrapped in paper rather than plastic. Our goal is to become a port of call for other companies and institutions trying to change behaviors and understand best practices.

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Marsha: Jill, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced in getting a multifaceted initiative like this off the ground?

Jill: This is our first full-fledged, cross-functional long term effort across National Geographic Partners and the Society. It has required aligning two companies with similar objectives around one vision of success. Additionally, it is a longer-term effort requiring us to keep people motivated for the long haul. As a publishing company we have traditionally focused on the next story, or the next show, so this requires a new mindset and set of skills.

Marsha: Let’s talk about how you have aligned around this common long-term vision, and why you brought John and Collective Next in to partner on this.

Jill: I have been working with John and Collective Next for over a decade and they have always been able to provide the processes and tools necessary to foster collaboration and alignment. When I joined Nat Geo two years ago and wanted to set a new pattern of working across different teams, I reached out to John. The session he partnered with me on had a transformational impact, and he soon began working with other leaders across the company who were inspired by the process and results.

When we launched Planet or Plastic in ­­June, we had a loose structure in place. Our priority was to get something out to the market and gauge the reaction. The response was incredible from consumers around the world who took the pledge to reduce their own use to global institutions who are looking to us to assume a leadership role on this important topic. This fall I reached out to John to design and facilitate a workshop for the cross functional leaders of the initiative in order to help us put more structure behind our initial approach and to strengthen governance and communication for the initiative.

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Marsha: John, what role did you see for CN to play?

John Colaruotolo: An initiative of this scale requires incredible organizational alignment, excellent communication processes, and complete clarity around roles and responsibilities. All internal stakeholders must share in a common vision and trust that that they can play their position and things will still get done. Our collaborative workshop process is designed to facilitate just these sort of outcomes.

Marsha: So where did you start?

John: Our workshop included 35 people from across National Geographic including the CEO. We wanted to help this diverse group appreciate the scale and complexity of the project. We began by co-creating a giant timeline at the front of the room that stretched from June of 2018 through 2020. We assigned different color stickies to each stakeholder group and asked them to populate the timeline with past, current, and planned activities. It was eye opening for everyone. People responded with comments like, “Wow I didn’t know this was going on” or “Hey there’s overlap in this area.” By providing a structure for each team to communicate their work, everyone began to see how interrelated all of their efforts were.

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Jill: Collectively building this timeline helped illuminate the challenge and opportunity before us.

Marsha: How did you build upon these insights to get people thinking as one team?

John: We played a game called “Win as Much As You Can” which is designed to underscore the key question of who is the “You” you want to be playing for. The answer of course is the collective.

Jill: It was telling to see people’s disparate reactions to the game and to the revelation that the optimal way to play (i.e., how to score the most points) was by working on behalf of all teams not just your own.

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JC: With these insights in place, we shifted to an exercise that placed the group in a future state success scenario and asked them to work backwards to define the vision and structure needed to support this success.

Jill: Throughout the workshop, participants worked in carefully curated cross-functional groups. One of the reasons the output of the workshop was so strong was that people from all parts of the organization (e.g., editorial, digital, social, channel content, research, education, etc.) developed solutions together.

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Marsha: What have you seen as the big shifts since the session?

Jill: When you go through a really effective collaboration session you emerge feeling light, feeling heard, reinvigorated—it builds a sense of alignment and authentic commitment. Since the workshop, I see us speaking a common language. Our approach is more collaborative and forgiving. Our communication is more straightforward and there is a greater sense of trust across different groups. People are also more proactive about raising their hands and flagging potential road bumps ahead. There is a greater focus on partnership across our companies. We have also instituted a series of practices to improve our governance model around the initiative—something we really needed to do.

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Marsha: What has it been like personally for each of you to work on such an ambitious initiative?

Jill: I feel incredibly proud to be involved in an effort that is so relevant and that consumers, companies and institutions are all signaling is the right thing to do. I have been inspired by the willingness of all our stakeholders to lean in and try to solve this challenge facing our planet.

JC: Our team has been really honored to be involved in a project like this, and thrilled by the reaction the effort is getting in the market place. Because we have been able to partner with National Geographic over time as well, we have a deep understanding of the organization and have been able to be that much more effective in partnering with Jill and her colleagues.

Jill: My ambition to continually work with CN is fueled by the fact that they are such a great partner. John and the team are always so invested in our success. Each time I do a workshop with Collective Next, my colleagues remark on the same thing; you really believe that our success is your success.