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How to get the go-ahead for your innovative (sustainability) ideas

On a sunny May evening in London, thinkers and doers from responsible businesses large and small came together at The Crowd Forum to consider what transformational business change looks like.

Our Chief Strategist Jim Fava led a discussion on how to explain ‘sustainability’ priorities in a way that helps a CEO/organization understand it, whatever their own motivation may be, e.g. increasing revenue, reducing costs, enhancing brand, or mitigating risks. We summarize the points raised in the discussion below.

Ikea’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Steve Howard, has the mantra of ‘going all in’ – cue an exciting evening of presentation and interview with this inspirational leader.

Our round table chose to use this idea of going big to think about what this means for the future of ‘sustainability’ – how do you get ideas off the ground? Is it transforming business models? Is it going mainstream?

In answering this, we talked a lot about the key factors for success when selling sustainability-related projects to your colleagues:

  • Get the messaging right – deliver the right message, to the right audience, at the right time. Use collateral which is familiar within the organization, for example, existing PowerPoint templates and key brand language. We discussed that some organizations don’t include ‘sustainability’ as part of their procurement criteria; as such, it’s necessary to reframe any pilot projects with more recognizable language to drive projects through (e.g. would it mean more to talk about ‘resilience’ and ‘raw material supply’?)
  • Establish the business case – ensure commercial and sustainability objectives are one and the same, or at least tightly aligned. For example, if you see value in installing solar energy to back up your data centers, make sure that your colleagues understand the positive impact on operational resilience.
  • Get a grip on scale and payback time – the reality for many senior leaders is that short to medium term results are extremely important, particularly from a financial perspective. If pilot schemes are financially viable over this time period, they are much more likely to prove successful.
  • Leverage other company functions – link similar objectives in different departments and back and front offices to allow for more effective collaboration. Build the business case for projects which are more likely to succeed in the longer term, so that these ideas have a network of supporters. And be sure to pull these levers at the right time to ensure project success.
  • Understand the personal goals of senior leaders – understand the core strategic priorities for leaders and align and ladder sustainability projects into these. For example, a chief technical officer is interested in innovation, while a chief financial officer will look at revenue maximization and cost saving.
  • Underpin projects with materiality – include stakeholders from across the business in a materiality analysis to ensure that you have a strategic direction behind new sustainability initiatives and pilots, and provide evidence that the ideas you are driving relate to areas that are priorities for your business. Getting stakeholders involved early in the process is likely to ensure a smoother transition from project inception to delivery.

Peripheral to these ‘success factors’, our table considered a number of other areas should be kept in mind to ensure a sustainability-related idea reaches heady heights of success:

  • Strike a balance – making your ideas (as part of a strategy) public tells everyone what your goals are and when you want to achieve them by. While this will most certainly highlight the good and aspirational, it will also make it clear where you’re not doing so well or lagging behind. While most leaders will only want to highlight the success stories, it may be in the interests of the media, NGOs or charities to pick up on stories which don’t put you in your best light. A transparent and honest position needs to be struck.
  • Understand the needs of the final consumer – the best product in a market will win and sustainability needs to be a part of that as opposed to a reason for being in itself.
  • Challenge existing paradigms and mindsets – to continue momentum in driving projects forward. Our table cited Amazon as an example of this, with their leadership principle of ‘Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit’[1] – i.e. speak out if you disagree with an idea and, once a decision is made, commit to support it, even if you don’t like it.

I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion, and hope the same can be said for all those on the table. While the above pointers for success suggest that it can still be a challenge to get ideas involving the ‘s’ word off the ground, we were all in agreement that sustainability is no longer being seen just as a hygiene factor stuck on to the end of a project/product. Sustainability, whether it goes by this or any other name, is increasingly being used as an innovation pitch – a stance which will only accelerate as scale and business value of initiatives grow. And Steve Howard’s insight from earlier in the evening resonated with us all as a way to keep the foot on the pedal towards success: ‘it is better to be fired for doing too much, than keep your job and do too little’.

Please do get in touch if any of the above points are pertinent to your role or organization.

You can contact Jim at Jim.Fava@anthesisgroup.com, or alternatively, use our fill out form below. Take a look at our recent blog on speaking about sustainability using business language or other blogs related to The Crowd Forum.

[1] http://www.amazonianblog.com/2016/11/what-it-means-to-disagree-and-commit-and-how-i-do-it.html


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