Four Keys to Thinking about the Future of Sustainability
It is often a good strategy to listen to the new ideas of thought leaders and successful CEOs to see if they can provide inspiration that can be used on a broader scale. In the Harvard Business Review article, Four Keys to Thinking About the Future, author Jeffrey Gedmin offers four ideas to help business leaders see into the future. Below his points, I’ve added ways to apply them to sustainability strategy and planning in order to maximize its effectiveness.
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) social
“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.
Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model. She tweets at@jenniferwoofter.
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