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Alice in Sustainabilityland – Part 3

April 1, 2010

SIX IMPOSSIBLE THOUGHTS FOR SUSTAINABILITY

Central to Alice’s adventures in Wonderland was the realization that in order to succeed, she had to embrace her father’s mantra to think of six impossible things before breakfast.  In Tim Burton’s movie, this realization coincided with the defeat of the Red Queen and her army – restoring the benevolent White Queen to power.

For Alice in Sustainabilityland, the lessons are similar. In order to succeed in running a sustainability program, you have to think impossibly. Or to use an overused phrase: “out of the box.” So here are the six impossible thoughts for corporate social responsibility and sustainability program managers:

#1 – CREATE SOMETHING SCARY – This is the quintessential idea behind thinking outside of the box. Too often, programs become stale and simply regurgitate existing initiatives in companies or copy similar programs from competitors. In a quest to be “innovative,” some programs take a look at how they can do things differently – only coming up with an idea that isn’t daring enough to make a difference. When I helped create OfficeMax’s A Day Made Better initiative – to bring a year’s worth of school supplies to 1,000+ teachers across the country at the same time, on the same day – we had one simple mantra. During brainstorming activities that led up to the award-winning program’s creation, we asked ourselves: Does it scare you? In order to be bold, in order to be daring, in order to catch someone’s attention – an idea has to be big, has to seem impossible, has to make your gut wrench just a little bit.  If you’re not getting scared, you’re not thinking far enough outside of the box. Your sustainability programs need to be new, different, and daring.

#2 – THE BASICS ARE ALL DONE – See, you read #1 and were ready to conquer the world, right? But did you forget about the basics? This impossible thought is extremely important. Here’s a quick checklist for you:

  • Are employees fully engaged and fully aware of the company’s stance on sustainability?
  • Do our program(s) have clearly defined, achievable, and measurable goals?
  • Do we have plans in place to address the top 10 business-sustainability issues facing our company?
  • Do we know what the top 10 business-sustainability issues facing our company are?
  • Are employees are fully engaged and fully aware of the company’s stance on sustainability (yes, that’s repeated on purpose)?

If you fall short with any of the above, you’ve got an opportunity (or several).

The reason why the focus on employees is emphasized so heavily is because that’s the number one area where companies fall short. It is also the number one area where American consumers benchmark the truly social responsibility of companies:  whether employees are treated well. If your company’s employees are treated well then it makes it much easier to inform them (and have them advocate for you) of your sustainability program. On the other hand, if your company has had a… spotty history in its treatment of its employees, you’ll hear about it. And oh by the way, your efforts to get them to advocate for you will fall very, very short.  A word to the wise: Know before you leap with this step.

#3 – TRUST ALL OF YOUR STAKEHOLDERS. YES, ALL – How’s that for an impossible thought? Whether you are a controversial company with a lot of protestors banging at your door or a company that always seems to do the right thing: all of your stakeholders are important. Do you trust them? If you can’t trust them all it means one of two things:

  • There’s a disconnection between your CSR programs and the expectations placed upon your business. These expectations might be right or unfounded.
  • You aren’t aware of the positive role all of your stakeholders (including negative stakeholders) can and will play in the development & implementation of your CSR / sustainability program.

Much like knowing what the top-ten important business-sustainability issues are for your company, you need to have a stakeholder analysis done. Who are your top positive and negative stakeholders? How are they ranked by their influence and their importance to you company, shareholders, and other stakeholders? How can you use negative stakeholders to your advantage? If you know the answer to that last question, that means you can trust them to fulfill a role for you.

Trust doesn’t necessarily mean, by the way, that you share all of your secrets and hope they don’t tell. Trust is simply a function of risk divided by experience. The role you give them in your sustainability program determines the amount of risk – with too much of a role and too much ignorance making the risk variable the greatest.

#4 – MY COMPANY READILY (AND PUBLICLY) ADDRESSES THE HARD STUFF – in tandem with #3, you have to be willing to talk about the hard stuff. Most stakeholders are tired of hearing how great you are, frankly. Anyone can write a CSR report that highlights your holiday gift giving activities or your recycling program. What’s more interesting to everyone is how your company handles the hard issues. How are the issues of diversity (or lack thereof), environmental degradation, or customer privacy handled and managed in your company?  Be prepared to talk about the stuff that doesn’t shine the best light on your company. When doing so, it gives everything else you’ve talked about the legitimacy you need.

#5 – EVERYONE GETS IT – Can you imagine a world where you don’t have to explain what CSR is and how important sustainability programs are to the reputation and bottom line of the company? Have you ever dealt with an executive who just didn’t “get it.” Well, in Alice in Sustinabilityland, everyone does and it’s because you’ve done such a good job with the previous four points

#6 – LET THE JOB SEARCH BEGIN – Yikes, if all of these impossible thoughts have turned in to reality – it means that us sustainability professionals are out in the cold. What a welcome day that would be. Luckily for my bank account there’s a reason why these thoughts are described as “impossible.”

To be clear, I’m not advocating that companies adopt these six thoughts as their own and implement them with blind faith. Rather, it is in the dissonance between these thoughts and reality that can instruct CSR/sustainability practitioners on where their programs might be falling short in their intended goals.

If you are an Alice (see our first article), the seemingly never ending task of challenging the Red Queens of the world is a daunting task. Don’t rest. Take the time to figure out how you can best fight back. You can change the world, after all. If you so choose.

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The author is the president of Do Well Do Good – a CSR & philanthropy consulting firm based in Chicago. (c) 2010.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 2, 2010 2:08 pm

    This is a brilliant. In a world where imagery and symbolism seems to have died in favor of cold hard facts and measurements, we need your kind of thinking and a little bit of playfulness to help people tap into their inner purpose and values in order to create real positive change.
    Thanks!

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