Walking the Talk: How to Move from Planning to Delivering on Your Sustainability Ambitions

by Phil Cumming on March 31, 2015

This blog was first published as part of the DōShorts Series on CSRwire Talkback.

All businesses have arrangements and rules for how the business is run, how decisions are made, how goods and services are procured, how people are hired, how data is collected and managed, how things are communicated, and so on. But how can these be harnessed to more effectively embed sustainability into the business?

Many companies get to the point of having a signed off and apparently well thought out sustainability strategy, generally with an impressive bunch of policies, action plans, and guidance documents sitting behind it. But in my experience – no matter how big or small the business – there is often a huge gulf between strategy and action.

An often overlooked, but simple truth is that the delivery processes that exist within your business also require a lot of attention – perhaps even more than what is given to producing the glossy strategy document.

Systems and processes may lack the glamour of “strategy” but without them there is a real danger that the work of the sustainability team could end up being in vain. On a couple of occasions recently I have even heard the phrase “paper tiger” used in reference to sustainability strategies and policies – which is a real shame.

Of course, there is no right or wrong answer to how this should be approached – but here are some of my thoughts to throw into the mix.

Mind the GapAnd the Culture

I would argue that the challenge is not just in bridging the gap between your strategy and action. It is to do so in a way that begins to embed sustainability more securely throughout your organisation. A former colleague of mine has likened this to Velcro – the more hooks you have in, the harder it is to disengage.

Being a little more formalised and systematic in determining what needs to be done to tap into and supplement existing ways of working will absolutely help you to embed sustainability more securely – even more so if you do it in a way which is in keeping with the organisation’s culture.

This may appear hugely daunting but it need not be. It requires you to make some quality time, take a step back, and have a good proper look at your business (through a ‘sustainability lens’ of course) to understand what makes it tick.

For instance, look at how things are done, how decisions are made, who the movers and shakers are, and why other initiatives either succeeded or failed – all in the context of what you’re trying to achieve. To make sustainability part of your business you really need to understand how your own business ecosystem works!

When I was at LOCOG I found that it was incredibly useful to get together with my team for regular “stock takes” looking at the organisation from different viewpoints. These “stock takes” were a great way of identifying if an “intervention” was required (to facilitate something to happen) or simply to enable certain questions to get asked.

The viewpoints included departments and teams, procurement categories, business processes, objectives and targets, etc. (i.e., looking at your progress to goals from each viewpoint in turn). I repeated this exercise every six months and it really helped to ensure things were as joined up as they could be.

Building Capability

Ideally, by implementing your sustainability strategy you will begin to exert a level of control and influence over your business activities and improve sustainability performance. This is easier said than done and in my view is often the weakest link for many organisations.

Achieving a coordinated and consistent approach throughout the business will be very difficult and will take time – even those organisations considered to be leaders in this space are unlikely to have cracked this nut!

One of the more significant areas you will need to consider is how well placed your organisation is to deliver. After all, it is your organisation that delivers – as sustainability practitioners we only facilitate it to happen! You will need to think about your resource needs and what learning and development needs your workforce have (possibly even your supply chain too).

For example, Kingfisher plc are launching executive engagement programs to help improve the knowledge base within their companies and empower employees to create change. They are focusing first on their most senior staff, who need to show sustainability leadership and will play an essential role in engaging their teams. Sustainability is also being integrated into the performance management systems and bonus criteria for key employees.

Delivering the Goods

It is very important to identify what needs to be done to ensure that sustainability is considered as part of day-to-day ways of working.

The mapping of business processes and controls and how they relate to each other to identify where interventions could be best made is key here. Remember, just because a process is not documented or formal does not mean it is any less important – if it’s how things have always been done or how certain teams work make sure you capture this. This is an important point – don’t fall into the trap of starting with a solution and looking for ways to make it fit. This will almost certainly fail!

Reporting and escalation is another area that needs exploring. In my experience, even if organisations have amended some of their management processes for sustainability, it does not necessarily mean that there is any real accountability.

One of my biggest achievements at LOCOG was getting sustainability embedded into the procurement process. This meant that sustainability was treated as a “go/no-go” for key deals and was appropriately reflected in all contracts.

Even more importantly. there was sustainability representation at a senior level on the organisation’s Deal Approval Group to act as a route of escalation, if needed, and ensure that things did not slip through the net.

I don’t believe there is a single right or wrong approach to any of this. It is about determining the best approach for your business, which is in keeping with its culture, making sure roles and responsibilities are clear, and a clear route of escalation exists where necessary.

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