Sustainability has gotten interesting. Hanks and I had taken to wondering whether it would happen in our lifetimes. It has. Not the whole shebang, but undoubtedly an inflection point. Stuff is happening that previously could not, at a remarkable pace. During a recent lockdown, I reflected on how my work has changed over the past year. One outcome of this reflection is Fieldnotes – our new blogspot aimed at sharing ideas, opinions and learnings.
I’m pretty clear that we’re not going ‘back’ to normal. Here are my five tips for navigating the new normal that is starting starting to form:
- Embrace context. Sustainability is mainstream. Almost everyone offers purpose-led, sustainable something. Diversity counts. We have the loud (investors and ESG rating agencies), the smooth (branding and communications agencies) and the deep (single-issue specialists). All are valid, in a given context. Admittedly, some of these contexts are pretty narrow. To help Execs navigate this crowded space, sustainability practitioners should qualify their answers with context. When someone asks: “Are investors interested in our carbon footprint?”, the answer is “It depends”. Then explain under what circumstances they might be interested (eg they’ve just become aware of the TCFD). Indicate what aspect of the footprint they might be interested in (eg your operational footprint if you are a big emitter or the footprint of your investment portfolio if you’re in financial services). Consider whether they’re likely to be interested in the actual footprint or what the footprint might impact (eg your ability to access capital going forward). The ability to put ESG effectively into context differentiates practitioners from the rest.
- Clarify your turf: I’ve been trying to de-jargonise for the past five years. This year I coined a jargon word. The ESG edge – ‘the edge’ for short – is your organisation’s interface with ESG challenges. It’s the sustainability practitioner’s territory. People in our organisations see the edge in very different ways. Some see it as ‘somewhere out there’, managed by a sustainability type, preferably with minimal impact on operational reality. most practitioners experience the edge as omnipresent, dynamic and complex. These perspectives are underpinned by worldviews. They have their uses (refer to tip number 1). And people don’t change their worldviews easily. Understanding this helps practitioners be more realistic about their role which is useful because we tend to be a passionate and driven bunch. I was much pleased when some of my clients started referring to ‘the edge’. I’ll post something on it next week.
- Get complexity-fit: Those I’ve engaged recently know I veer towards complexity at the least opportunity. I use the term in a technical sense. (Dave Snowden’s Children’s party story is an excellent starting point.) I discovered Snowden’s work a year ago and the Cynefin® Framework and various Cognitive Edge methods have brought sustainability alive for me again. Sustainability practitioners tend to be good at systems thinking: turning complex inputs into simple outputs. (Think 2×2 materiality matrices in integrated reports.) The problem with simple outputs is that they’re often too simplistic to inform better decisions at the edge. I’d all but given up on reconciling consulting with my insights from two decades of indigenous and wilderness practice, but complexity is the bridge. (Obvious in hindsight, as these things often are.) So discovering Snowden’s work has been huge; I am very grateful and will be blathering on about it for quite a while. I know complexity is not for everyone, but the edge is complex and we humans have an innate – though forgotten – capability in this respect. If we don’t take these two points seriously, we’re going to struggle with where we are heading.
- Opt for agile engagements: Incite is a word-of-mouth company, almost exclusively. In 2019, we submitted a rare tender for a Shared Value strategy in the ICT sector. The tender request listed the tasks; we gave a fee estimate; the contract was structured per deliverable. It was not a good experience all round. Every organisation’s edge is unique. What an organisation needs to inform better decisions at the edge – and the most effective way to operate there – is unique too. Whether in sustainability strategy, innovation or disclosure, my best results have come from flexible thinking partnerships. Having learnt the hard way, I limit my project work to engaging with a small internal team on whatever is required, wherever it leads, as long as it moves us in the right direction.
- Share and learn. We’re aiming Fieldnotes at practitioners, internal and external: people grappling honestly with what sustainability seeks and requires. Who want organisations to be part of the solution, not just less of a problem. Who are a bit cynical – because I suspect we’re either that or potentially naïve. Who see their work as an expression of their being in the world. (Be warned, my posts will wander from personal to organisational, from spiritual to material, and back again.) If you are a practitioner – and even if you’re not – welcome to Fieldnotes. Please engage and share your views.