From the archives. Originally published June 30, 2004. New Bottom Line 13.3
How does your organization set its sustainability goals? Are they sufficient to the challenge — and the opportunities — at hand?
The sustainability challenge is daunting to many, in part because it seems so far away, in part because the common formulation of it is so vague. The Bruntland definition is noble, but not testable; where’s the target? The Natural Step framework provides more specifically testable vectors, but leaves open the question of how aggressively to pursue them.
Most companies prefer to set reasonable goals that they are confident of achieving. Others select aggressive and public goals that demand both technical innovation and organizational breakthroughs. ST Microelectronics: cut greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of ten by 2010. DuPont: zero emissions, zero defects, zero injuries. Nike: eliminate chlorine. Interface: “no smokestacks or sewer pipes.”
Some companies, even some great ones, seem reluctant to declare specific goals. As the manager of a noted high tech company once told me, “We’d rather not state a specific goal unless we’re confident we can reach it.” But safe goals may not be sufficient to establish and maintain leadership in competitive global markets, may not encourage the breakthroughs that exceed those goals, and certainly won’t be sufficient in the fast moving world of corporate sustainability initiatives. Check yourself: Are you confident that you know what the next regulatory initiative from the EU will be? Are you confident that you know what the next innovation from your competitors will be? Are you confident that you know who your future competitors will be?
Only the more courageous among us match the “stretch” goals standards of the Apollo mission. NASA realized that challenging technical achievements required for the moon mission would have to be supported by powerful social innovations. The first act of the Apollo project, I’m told, was to throw a victory party — at which the NASA organization celebrated the successful moon launch and return. After the party, they sat down and asked themselves, “How did we do it? What did we do at the end of the process that enabled us to fulfill this mission? What were the actions in the last year, and the year before that and the year before that?”
When the gap is big, and the pathway not clear, this reverse mental engineering can make it possible to see a path — from the goal to the start — that may be obscured by the dizzying permutations that ramify when looking from the start toward the goal, when the branching possibilities are too numerous to see clearly. (To deal with the challenge of apparent technical impossibility — or at least of large gaps between “need to” and “know how” NASA created the Department of It Can’t be Done, which dispassionately turned impossible demands into design specs that could be systematically invented and engineered into possibility. (See Designing for The REAL World. And the Real WORLD.)
A stretch sustainability goal — like a 100% renewable energy portfolio within 10 years — may seem equally outlandish. “Can we do it?” some will ask; “Is it even possible?” On the other hand, the more useful question to ask — given that we will need to trend in that direction at some rate in any case — may be “what would it take to achieve that goal (and not at the expense of business goals)?” Radical efficiency gains? A new kind of deal with an energy provider? Something we haven’t thought of yet? It’s in that stretch beyond the goals that are already within reach that “invention” comes into play. Not “can we?” but “how can we?”
OK, so you’re convinced that your company needs more powerful drivers — to communicate powerfully to the world, to provide sufficient clarity and challenge to their work forces and supply chains, and to reinforce the cultural DNA that influences the company as much as any boatload of management systems and directives. Now comes the hard part, because declaring stretch goals, however inspiring, without engaging your teams is more foolhardy than courageous. The key: broad and engaging dialog needed to surface, select and embrace powerful, specific goals:
- DISCUSS how you have — and have not — used specific goals in the past; what’s worked about that; what needs to change; what’s being done to change it.
- ENGAGE diverse, cross-functional teams in that discussion.
- ARTICULATE a powerful, high level goals frame (but one more incisive and specific than a “mom and apple pie” Brundtland definition).
- CHALLENGE the organization to develop and articulate the specific measures needed at all levels — business units, facilities, work groups — to move your company toward those goals.
- REPORT progress toward those goals broadly throughout your organization (and don’t wait for annual CSR report — provide live, timely feedback throughout the organization and stakeholder community).
- INCLUDE compelling “aspirational” goals — as a way of “informally” expanding the scope and imagination of the goals formation conversation (and giving a flavor of who works here, what they think about, what moves them) without committing the company prematurely.
- CONSIDER how your company could make money by leading the way — because if you don’t, someone will. “There are 2,800 Japanese companies committed to achieve zero emissions,” notes Gunther Pauli, of the Global ZERI Network, “and half of them have already eliminated all forms of landfill.” [Note: back ion 2004!]
- GRANT permission to fail. “An essential aspect of creativity,” Polaroid founder Edwin Land wisely observed, “is not being afraid to fail. Scientists made a great invention by calling their activities hypotheses and experiments. They made it permissible to fail repeatedly until in the end they got the results they wanted. In politics or government, ” and all too often in business, “if you made a hypothesis and it didn’t work out, you had your head cut off.”
And leave room for your people to exceed your goals, no matter how high you may set them. Dutch industrial engineer Jan Hanhart (and author of EcoFeedback) argued against even stretch goals, because he didn’t want to put a ceiling, however high, on his peoples’ sense of possibility. That’s worth taking to heart, since even zero waste may not be a sufficient goal to meet the sustainability challenge (though it’s certainly an engaging one). The real challenge isn’t just to be less bad or to slow the rate of deterioration, but to actually build the regenerative capacity of the living systems that sustain the human experiment — and to make that a normal consequence of doing business.
Finally, be open to success. Huey Johnson, former California Secretary of Resources, suggested some years ago that it was time to stop “working on” environmental problems — it was time to solve them. What would it take to eliminate the problem once and for all, he asked, or at least — as society has done with other impossible, “can’t change human nature” problems like piracy, slavery, and drunk driving — to remove the social permission, the common assumption that “it couldn’t be otherwise,” and render it a rare exception? What’s the profitable role your business could play in the process?
The folks at NASA, of course, didn’t have a choice. When John F. Kennedy set the nation on a course to send a man to the moon — and bring him back alive — within ten years, NASA didn’t have the option to say to the President of the United States, “Sorry boss, can’t do it.”
You do have a choice. Or do you?
© 2004, 2023 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.
Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.
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