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Does Sustainability Progress Require Disruption?

The SSC Team September 22, 2016 Tags: , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Enjoy this post from the SSC Archives. 

The Harvard Business Review article, For Cross-Functional Change, a Good Disruption Helps, by author Brad Power has been percolating in our minds over the last few weeks. Strategic Sustainability Consulting has been around for almost a decade, and during that time we've asked ourselves multiple times, "why isn't society moving faster towards sustainability?" The evidence of major upheaval (climate change, income inequality, water scarcity) is indisputable and the business case (cost savings, competitive advantage, increased productivity) is well-established. So what's holding us back?

Maybe it's that we aren't feeling the pain of our unsustainability yet.

"How do you improve the whole organization, not just parts of it?" Power asks. "The uber challenge for process improvement in organizations has always been to successfully make improvements across functions. But have any sizable organizations assigned people to manage their major end-to-end processes — and actually been successful?"

While Powers isn't writing about sustainability, his message resonates. Most companies have only made modest inroads in their journey towards sustainability. Even the often heralded sustainability "leaders" recognized with awards and named to "100 Most Sustainable" lists often have only incremental improvements to showcase, spaced unevenly across their operations. 

Why is that?

"In the absence of a significant disruptive event, or obvious proof that the world is changing, the gravitational forces in organizations pull strongly towards the performance engine: functional, hierarchical, command-and-control, rigid," notes Power. "And this engine gets improved and streamlined only with small, incremental changes."

Without a doubt, disruption is coming -- via increases in unpredictable extreme weather events, or changing patterns of water availability, or political uncertainty created by unequal access to natural resources. All the evidence points to the fact that disruption is coming. We might not know exactly what form it will take, or how hard it will hit -- but it's coming and companies need to do all they can to prepare and mitigate those risks.

So what can sustainability leaders do to help prepare their companies to face the inevitable disruptions to come? Powers advises:

"...in an environment that is increasingly unpredictable and volatile, leaders must devote more resources to sensing and responding to threats and opportunities, and then must communicate to the organization what “responding” means in terms of changing the way it does its work. Without a clear and compelling, motivating case being made by leaders, successful cross-functional changes will remain few and far between."

We agree. In fact, our first question to potential clients is "how does [what you're asking us to do for you] fit into your larger sustainability strategy?" And our second question is "how confident are you that your sustainability strategy is helping you make effective decisions?" Nine times out of ten, the conversation takes a big step backward so that the issues of uncertainty, volatility, changing stakeholder expectations, and risk management can first be fully discussed. And that's a good thing.

If you need some help looking at the big sustainability picture, and what it means for your company's future, please contact us. We're happy to talk with you about how we can help!

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