Sean Connery as James Bond, in Amsterdam on the set of Diamonds Are Forever.
Photo by Rob Mieremet. Photo source: Wikipedia vis Dutch National Archives
It’s a classic James Bond scenario. One brilliant, committed evildoer, with a small force of minions, is bent on global domination to get what he wants. He is pitted against one brilliant, committed do-gooder bent on stopping him at all costs. As usual, the clock is ticking.
In our case however, there are vast forces committed to actively opposing any increase in sustainable actions, with an army of minions, all arrayed against a small-but-committed cadre of leaders — business executives, NGOs, government officials, scientists, and members of the public bent on stopping them. And the clock certainly is ticking.
Many top executives who appear to align well with the Black Hats should —and could — be natural allies of sustainable actions. If they truly knew how sustainability could increase bottom-line profits, shareholder value, and value in the community, maybe they would leap into the fray with the White Hats, become leaders in this fight themselves.
It is up to the rest of us to be effective sustainability leaders and to lead them, and the world, to become leaders too.
How? First, by making sustainability a valuable part of the business, and making sure all involved know it. If you’ve seen our articles on submerged value, breaking through to the C-Suite, etc., you’ll recognize our emphasis on this theme. Second, we need to be rigorous about what works – really works — and what doesn’t.
Taking a cold, hard, and detailed look to see what works, and tossing the things that don’t, greatly increases our credibility. It also means fewer wasted resources. As we all know, sustainability programs don’t get enough resources to waste them on things that don’t work!
It has long been our approach to inject rigor into what we do and to focus on finding what works through hard evidence – then scaling it for larger impact.
Before I started Valutus, I conducted research on whether a centralized sustainability / CSR organization had better results, or whether a decentralized one did, one where “sustainability is everyone’s job” and there is no CSO. There were champions of both approaches but, if one worked substantially better, then people using the other one weren’t maximizing their impact. We’re all about impact and we needed to know which was true. (It turns out it’s the centralized organization with a CSO. The intuition that explains the results is simple: Sustainability is like profitability – while it’s everyone’s job to help a company make money, companies still have CFOs.)
Similarly, I led a study about which sustainable supply chain practices actually work. Here again, the results pointed to a way to get more bang for both the buck and the managerial effort. What we found, after reviewing data from almost 1,000 organizations, was astounding. Under half of the 50 sustainable supply chain practices companies use can actually be shown to work.
In other words, the majority of what companies do to promote sustainability in their value chain doesn’t seem to work at all and is a waste of precious resources. But why is this?
I begin a number of my talks by asking directly, “What if you could do more of what tends to work, and less of what may not?” But maybe the question that matters is, “Why don’t organizations know what actually works before they start?”
The answer seems to be that companies just don’t know how to find out what works. They may be brilliant at making better widgets or developing superior medicines, but when it comes to sustainability, they don’t know the right questions to ask (or simply don’t believe it’s possible to answer them). Even if they’re on the right track, they often don’t apply enough rigor to the answers.
Now, as anyone who follows us has heard (once or twice before!), we’ve spent the better part of two decades quantifying things we were told could not be measured. But if the unmeasurable is out there, we haven’t found it yet. (For one thing, it’s not always necessary to come up with the exact and perfect answer. As the great statistician John Tukey was fond of saying, “An approximate answer to the right question is worth a great deal more than a precise answer to the wrong question.”)
When I was doing the research into making a supply chain more sustainable — helping suppliers improve their environmental and social performance — it took about 40% of the questions we ask just to clarify how well each practice worked. But we had to do it — no way do we want our clients putting their resources into low-value projects, and no way does the world have time for us to be inefficient.
Today’s sustainability leaders need to be rigorous, to take nothing for granted, and to learn to measure and quantify what matters, even if that initially seems impossible. We need to know our project will work.
We can’t afford not to: Not succeeding squanders resources, wastes time, and emboldens those opposing us. The forces trying to hold us back need to be shaken, not stirred.