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4 Keys to Thinking about the Future of Sustainability

The SSC Team February 3, 2015 Tags: , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Here is a blog entry from last year that we thought would be worth another look. Enjoy!

At SSC, we often look to thought leaders and successful CEOs to give us inspiration and we are rarely disappointed in what we find.  In the Harvard Business Review article, Four Keys to Thinking About the Future, author Jeffrey Gedmin offers four ideas to help leaders see into the future. We thought his points below were great, and applied them to sustainability strategy and planning.

1. ENHANCE YOUR POWER OF OBSERVATION.

"For starters, be empirical and always be sure you’re working with the fullest data set possible when making judgments and discerning trends. Careful listening, a lost art in today’s culture of certitude and compulsive pontificating, can help us distinguish the signal from the noise."

Listen to your stakeholders -- both your supporters and your critics. Listen to the language they are using. Investigate their claims.  Ask them for clarification when you don't fully understand what they are saying, and make them be specific. You don't have to respond to every request or complaint that you get, but having an open mind will allow you to spot trends and notice opportunities you might otherwise miss.

2. APPRECIATE THE VALUE OF BEING (A LITTLE) ASOCIAL.

"I’m convinced that a company culture that encourages curiosity is vitally important... Curiosity keeps us learning and helps us, like the virtue of patience, to see the hidden, or understand the unexplained."

Don't put all your eggs in one basket -- experiment, pilot, and test sustainability initiatives in small increments. Find a risk level that's comfortable for you and play around a bit. Ask the question "why?"... a lot.  Find ways to help your colleagues get curious about sustainability and its impact on their job functions.

3. STUDY HISTORY.

"I think you study history to study human nature, the human condition, and human behavior. This is the realm of patterns, but also — frustratingly and fascinatingly — of infinite complexity and unpredictability."

Revisit the sustainability initiatives that failed or were rejected by management and ask some questions. What are the systemic factors that are keeping your sustainability strategy from reaching its full potential? What lessons from other departments and initiatives can inform your approach? Are there examples that you can draw on from other industries, or other parts of your supply chain? Sustainability challenges are rarely unique, and in most cases you can find answers (or parts of answers) if you look around and notice who's been in a similar situation before.

4. LEARN TO DEAL WITH AMBIGUITY.

"Whether it’s nature or nurture, most of us seem hard-wired to sort the world into simple binary choices. Alas, there’s often lots of grey out there."

What impact is climate change going to have on your business? How is a growing income disparity going to affect your market share? When will tighter regulation on your supply chain partners start impacting your pricing model? You will find that the true answer to these questions is, "I don't know." Sustainability is so complex that it is often impossible to accurately predict the future. So effective sustainability leaders must learn to successfully deal with ambiguity. Using systems thinking, applying sustainability principles ("reduce reliance on fossil fuels") rather than prescriptive rules ("install solar") will help sustainability leaders stay flexible and open to the best opportunities when they present themselves down the road.

Thanks to Environmental Leader for publishing a version of this article on their website!

SSC helps companies develop sustainability strategies that are relevant today, AND sets a course for the future. If you'd like some assistance creating or refining your sustainability roadmap, please contact us. We'd love to help.

5 Ways to Keep Your Sustainability Strategy on Track

The SSC Team January 20, 2015 Tags: , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Be sure to check out this previously published blog entry for some inspiration to start off the new year right on track. Enjoy:

There is nothing more frustrating than seeing your company’s hard-fought sustainability strategy slip away as a result of competing priorities, disengaged employees, or an opaque bureaucracy. Don't let your efforts go to waste!  Incorporate as many of these ideas into your sustainability plan as you can to ensure that it continues to evolve and adapt (and even improve) long after the initial enthusiasm is over.

1. Frame sustainability in terms of business process and success.

The more you embed sustainability into the existing systems of your company, the more it will become business-as-usual, and thus harder to forget or ignore. If your company has a standard 3-year payback time for capital investments, then make sure your sustainability expenditures pay for themselves in less than 36 months. If your HR department has a skill categorization used for new hires, then make sure that sustainability aspects are added to the tool used by the HR managers. Make sustainability criteria part of the existing new vendor on-boarding process, rather than a separate questionnaire. And in each of these areas, make sure that you can clearly and concisely explain why sustainability adds business value. If you can't do that, you're going to have major trouble getting others on board.

2. Put sustainability into job descriptions. 

What does your sales team need to know about the company's sustainability goals? What kind of eco-design experience do product developers need? What do facilities managers need to know about LEED? What do customer service reps need to be able to explain to sustainability-minded buyers? In which sustainability reporting standards and green marketing guidelines should the marketing staff demonstrate competence? Go through each category of job descriptions--by both department and seniority level--and identify the hard and soft sustainability skills that are needed to execute and improve the company's sustainability strategy over time.

3. Put sustainability into work orders.

Embed sustainability into the way that your work gets done. Whether you call it work instructions, or a standard operating procedure--make sure that you make it explicitly clear who, where, when, why, and how sustainability should be incorporated into everyday tasks and periodic activities. But make sure that the instructions don't have sustainability jargon written all over them- instead, make it simple and clear so that the discrete components of a larger sustainability activity are broken down and inserted into the relevant business process.

4. Set corporate goals, but require business units to get involved.

Letting each department create its own sustainability strategy is like herding cats—it’s nearly impossible to get everyone headed in the same direction. Forcing business units to conform to a single set of corporate sustainability activities is also a recipe for disaster since it ignores the innate differences that appear across geographies, duties and responsibilities, and workforce demographics. Instead, opt for a hybrid approach: decide what sustainability means for the company as a whole. From there, develop three to five top sustainability goals--like reducing carbon emissions by 15 percent in five years. Then, let the individual business units create action plans to get there--using whatever means are most applicable to their unique situation. When business units take ownership over execution of the plan, they are much more likely to see it through to the end.

5. Institute a semi-annual sustainability presentation to the Board of Directors. 

Nothing creates a sense of accountability like standing before the highest governance body of your organization to report on your sustainability successes and failures. Particularly when you follow the rule #1 above (frame sustainability in terms of business success), your board will be eager to hear about how sustainability is reducing operating cost, mitigating risk, increasing revenue, opening up new markets, and improving staff recruitment and retention. Perhaps more than any other group, the Board will force you to answer the question, "what value does this bring to the company?"

If these aren't enough for you, consider adding these options as well:

  • Publish an annual sustainability report -- it's hard to step backwards once you've put yourself out there in terms of transparency and disclosure. And once you're committed to doing a report, you'll be motivated to keep it full of awesome stories, meaningful metrics, and a sense of momentum.
  • Incentivize sustainability performance -- make sure that your performance-based compensation structure (bonuses, stock awards, other perks) are linked to achieving sustainability goals. Make sure to include both short- and long-term sustainability goals, so that people are encouraged to see the big picture, rather than just the year-end goal posts.
  • Dedicate time and money to bringing in outside experts -- Outside perspective can be invaluable. Whether it's a sustainability consultant, a local government representative, or the leader of a national NGO, hearing from sustainability advocates can test your assumptions, reveal new possibilities, and validate your charted course. Get inspired, get challenged, and get re-committed!

What has your company done to keep the sustainability momentum alive and well? Share your comments below, or tell me on Twitter (@jenniferwoofter). And if you liked this article, please share it on your social media platform of choice!

Thanks to 2degrees for also publishing this article.  Read it here.