On the heels of my most recent post (Surveys Lift the Lid on Innovation & Sustainable Supply Chain Management, Uncovering Value & Leadership Traits http://bit.ly/h941Jb) comes another survey by the MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group. Like the Aberdeen and Capgemini studies, Sustainability: The ‘Embracers’ Seize Advantage uncovered two distinct camps of companies: “embracers” — those who place sustainability high on their agenda — and “cautious adopters,” who have yet to focus on more than energy cost savings, material efficiency, and risk mitigation.
According to the MIT/BCG study , the survey indicated that many companies view sustainability as eventually becoming “core,”; however the more advanced “embracers” were already acting on the belief that the sustainability ‘business case” was already a functional, core element of its organizational risk management and efficiency strategy. Embracers were also seeing the “payoff of sustainability-driven management largely in intangible advantages, process improvements, the ability to innovate and, critically, and in the opportunity to grow.” Plus, and this is no surprise, embracers were found to be the highest performing businesses queried in the study.
Key MIT/BCG Findings
Several interesting findings emerged that synced up well with the Aberdeen and Capgemini studies, from an innovation and leader/laggard perspective:
- Embracer companies are implementing sustainability-driven strategies widely in their organizations and have largely succeeded in making robust business cases for their investments.
- All companies — both embracers and cautious adopters — see the benefits of strategies such as improved resource efficiency and waste management.
- Embracer companies are assigning value to intangible factors (employee engagement, stakeholder concerns) when forming strategies and making decisions.
- Embracers are more aggressive in their sustainability spending, but the cautious adopters are catching up and increasing their commitments at a faster rate than the embracers.
- The sustainability-driven management approaches of embracer companies — which claim to be gaining competitive advantage via sustainability — exhibit seven shared traits that together suggest how sustainability may alter management practice for all successful companies in the future.
From a supply chain perspective the study found that embracers appear to be able to make a more compelling business case for sustainability, developing and integrating sustainability strategies in “everything from procurement and supply chain management to marketing and brand building.”
The MIT/BCG study discovered seven practices or characteristics that “embracers share. They are:
1. Move early — even if information is incomplete. Embracers tend to be bold and see the importance of being a “first mover” from a competitive perspective. What the study found most compelling was that embracers generally accepted that they need to act before they necessarily have all the answers.
“Embracers are not paralyzed by ambiguity, and instead see action as a way to generate data, uncover new options and develop evidence iteratively that makes decision-making increasingly effective. Movement diminishes uncertainty”.
2. Balance broad, long-term vision with projects offering concrete, near-term “wins.” Leading companies find a way to balance corporate visions with concrete, action oriented projects that will produce short-term successes.
“Smart embracers balance those aims with narrowly defined projects in, say, supply chain management, which allow them to produce early, positive bottom-line results. They exhibit relentless practicality”.
3. Drive sustainability top-down and bottom-up. Embracers find ways to engage its organization vertically and horizontally early and creating champions that can collectively ensure the 360-degree perspective that’s vital to sustainability.
4. Aggressively de-silo sustainability — integrating it throughout company operations. Embracers openly encourage cross-functional problem identification and problem solving and seek ways for more open innovation, group-think and collaborative action.
5. Measure everything (and if ways of measuring something don’t exist, start inventing them). I am not certain that I would measure EVERYTHING, but rather look for key performance metrics that matter to the core vision of sustainability that organizations seek to satisfy. Measure what matters, don’t just measure just for measurements sake.
6. Value intangible benefits seriously. Embracers are clearly distinguished from cautious adopters in their readiness to value intangibles as meaningful competitive benefits of a sustainability strategy. However, embracers accept that it takes time to develop their ability to measure — or even to understand fully — intangible advantages, and they need to make their investment decisions on the basis of a combination of tangible benefits, intangibles and risk management scenarios.
7. Try to be authentic and transparent — internally and externally. Finally, companies leading the charge on sustainability are fundamentally realistic. They do not overstate motives or set unrealistic expectations, and they communicate their challenges as well as their successes.
The Evolution of a Sustainability Mindset- From Laggard to Innovator
The results of all three studies compare well with Peter Senges and Bob Willards remarks in several of their books, mirroring the development phases in organizations toward a sustainability culture, governance and business strategy. Willards model shows how as companies progress toward being sustainable enterprises, they can be roughly nested into a five-stage sustainability continuum. They evolve from an unsustainable model of business in Stages 1, 2 and 3, to a sustainable business framework in Stages 4 or 5. Willard explains that “executive mindsets also evolve from thinking of “green,” “environmental,” and “sustainable” initiatives as expensive and bureaucratic threats in the early stages, to recognizing them as catalysts for strategic growth in the later stages.”
Source: Bob Willard- Fives Stages of Sustainability
As leading organizations implement more efficient, creative, less resource intensive and wasteful practices, they quickly can realize direct and indirect financial and brand benefits. Truly innovative, agile and resilient companies with a leaning toward change management tend to ‘embrace’ this new paradigm as part of organizational ‘core values’ as successes rack up…it’s like a snowball effect. The more that is achieved in the name of sustainability, the greater and larger the positive benefit. Sustainability can become positively addicting! At the same time, the chasm between the leaders and followers tends to widen, and the followers have to spend much more time, energy and resources to play catch up…if they catch up at all.
With the MIT/BCG and other two studies, one common thread that is clear to me (and hopefully you) is that organizational dynamics have a lot to do with how well companies adapt to change, especially when it involves issues surrounding the three legs of sustainability. The MIT study hit the nail on the head when it stated that “Where companies struggle when it comes to making sustainability an integral part of the business is often not so much with the technical side of things but with the human dimension of managing it.” In fact it was Peter Senge (in The Fifth Discipline), who states that a learning organization is one in which “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”
Seeing business from a “whole systems” perspective is truly what characterizes innovative, leading organizations from the competition. Embracing organizations typically are more agile, adaptive, and (ultimately) more productive. As businesses seek stronger competitive positions and reach outside their four walls to integrate innovations across supply chains, one critical, intangible element will still remain- the “human dynamic”.
Upcoming posts will dive into management and organizational culture, its effects on driving the sustainability business case, and approaches to drive “cultures of innovation” and leadership beyong “the four wall” and throughout the value chain.