Lose the Bus

June 20, 2011
  • Ted Howes

    Former Director, Advisory Services, BSR

Contributor’s note:  I love thinking about organizations, leadership, and sustainability. This is the first in a series of posts on "Leadership Next" for sustainability. Step One: Lose the Bus.

We’ve all been on the wrong team (or been the wrong teammate) at one point or another and recognize the continuing value of Jim Collins’ Good to Great adage, “Get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off.” In sustainability, businesses often have the wrong bus altogether.  They create CSR or sustainability departments to understand and act on the strategic imperative of sustainability.  This is well meaning but ultimately flawed. By putting sustainability in an organizational box, three things can happen.  

One, the bus can get stuck in traffic. When companies are trying to discover, build, and deliver new offerings, a CSR team is either not present, can seem to run counter to those efforts, or is unable to turn their sustainability needs into consumer-facing value. This is pretty common. I was working with a telecom company that had identified their three top sustainability drivers. Unfortunately, these were all inward looking: their impact, their footprint, their internal needs. They missed the fact that their customers were also struggling with the same issues. In response, we built a suite of customer-facing offerings that incorporated their sustainability concerns. The response was ecstatic, and the opportunity was clear: Would you rather deliver on sustainability for your employees or your millions of customers?  

But the bus got stuck when the ideas got kicked into CSR. If sustainability had sat in the business or design departments or became a c-suite function, the ideas would have been carried forward. In the end, the company missed the opportunity to act and  turn their sustainability needs into solutions for their customers.  

Two, the bus can become crowded with experts. Now, I love sustainability geeks and consider myself to be a card-carrying member. But often times when organizations focus on building a sustainability team, it loses the message and meaning by only bringing aboard sustainability experts.  Just as in innovation, sustainability needs collaborative teams composed of human-factor experts, prototypers, experimenters, organizational behavior experts, storytellers, etc. We need people who are not in the echo chamber of the mission of sustainability and who are ultimately the majority of our audience, both internally and externally.  

A couple of years back, I was leading a sustainability and innovation workshop with a Fortune 500 company. The night before, I read their sustainability report with its endless GRI indicators and internal focus. The day of the workshop, I asked the 25 or so gathered executives how many of them had read their sustainability report. Now, these were the top supply chain executives, the people whose efforts and data gathering composed the majority of the report. Only three hands went up, and two of those were mine and a colleague’s.  I asked the group, if we can’t make sustainability relevant for our most intimate stakeholders, how can we possibly make it compelling for our most critical stakeholders—our customers?   

By bringing aboard ethnographers, experimenters, and storytellers, our efforts can go more deeply into the organization and we can talk about our efforts (internally and externally) in much more resonant and connecting way. The best companies are now doing this as they talk about their sustainability successes and failures—not as a substitute for getting their metrics right but as a way to make them stick.

Three, the bus can become more important than the purpose it serves. Often times when sustainability becomes codified in an organization as CSR, the agenda of that department at best runs parallel to the broader strategic needs of the company. Internal struggles and a focus on expanding budget, justifying head count, and “demonstrating” impact can actually diminish the sustainability imperative of organizations into perpetuating departmental needs.  

So let’s lose the bus. Instead, let’s integrate sustainability into one of the core business functions, bring in multidisciplinary thinkers and doers, and create compelling offerings that reflect the sustainability imperative of the organization.

Next up, “we’re going to need a bigger boat.”

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