Scalable. Power through. Synergy. Hard stop. Run up the flagpole. These are all terms and phrases that sounded powerful when I first heard them, but have now become so overused it’s hard for me not to roll my eyes. And indeed, many of them are on a list featured in a Business Insider article “20 Annoying Phrases You Should Stop Saying at Work.” (Beware, you may cringe at your own frequent use of most of these turns. It’s okay, I’m right there with you and as a consultant, I’m the guiltiest of all because this is our daily lingo.)
What’s missing from the list? Strategy. Strategy has become a tired term. In companies, it’s common to see things being passed around as a strategy when, truthfully, they’re just metrics. Or mission statements. Or frameworks. Or, just simply, a PowerPoint presentation riddled with strong opinions.
To become a strategy, a company’s approach to a given problem has to address what the company is going to do and what it is not going to do. And it only becomes strategic – truly strategic – when the strategy is accompanied by a fact-based understanding of why those decisions were made.
So how do you do this? A SWOT analysis is a great starting point. But I’ve found sometimes a SWOT template isn’t as dimensional as one needs for sustainability and it doesn’t necessarily provoke groundbreaking thinking. So I developed these six questions can help guide your team's work to create a strategic and breakthrough approach to sustainability:
What do we do really well, better than anyone else?
This should be the core of any company. If your company doesn’t have a competitive advantage, it may be time to reassess a lot of things – including whether your company will be around much longer. There is no doubt, for example, that Walmart’s competitive differentiation is its everyday low prices. The key enabler, and its competitive advantage, of this is the company’s incredible operational expertise. It’s therefore no surprise they’ve leveraged this institutional operational knowledge of efficiency to improve the environmental footprint of their value chain as a centerpiece of its sustainability strategy.
What aren’t we doing that we should?
It’s quite possible that you’re missing something important in your sustainability strategy. Or, frankly, you’re hesitant to confront an uncomfortable reality.
This is where stakeholder engagement comes in to play. If your company is large enough, business leaders at environmental or labor organizations (and your employees!) likely have a point of view on what you’re not doing. Listening to others is a fundamental way of gaining perspective on where your company is and where it should be.
I’ve led several stakeholder engagement efforts that have proven to be eye-opening for leaders in big companies. The value in these efforts in shaping your sustainability strategy is hard to measure, but is worth it.
What could put our business in jeopardy? (Or at least make it much harder to do what we do?)
Each company faces risk. But knowing what can go wrong and its potential impact on your business is crucial. Let’s take water for example. For people like me who live in the Northeast, water conservation is not a daily topic. We take access to water for granted. But if I were running a company that is national and dependent on water, that would change my perspective. Agricultural companies are an obvious example. Less obvious would be the restaurant industry. Think about it, if a restaurant’s water supply is scaled back or completely cut off, it can’t function. They can’t cook the food, they can’t clean the kitchen, they can’t clean the bathrooms. It’s a huge risk to the business. Identifying these risks and addressing them head-on are crucial for a true strategy to be comprehensive enough.
Are we “burying the lead?”
There are likely a few things that your company has punted on (another overused term) that it needs to address. And “legacy programs” are often the hardest to kill because the mental mantra of “But, we’ve always done that!” can rule culture.
You can’t be all things to all people. You just can’t. In all likelihood, there is something you’re doing that you should either stop completely or de-emphasize. It’s not only cluttering up your strategy, but also cluttering up your messaging.
Think of it this way, what should be prominently featured in your next sustainability report? If you wind up doing a feature on the recycling efforts of your company’s paper recycling initiative, well, that’s not strategic. If, however, you talk about your company’s overall efforts to go to zero waste in order to force inefficiencies out of the value chain, well, all of a sudden that’s a lot more interesting.
What’s the real problem?
Get honest. Like, seriously honest. If you don’t have an honest diagnosis of the core problem at hand, you’re looking at things through rose-colored glasses. You’re letting the taste of your company’s proverbial Kool-Aid taint your responsibility to steer the company’s resources in a strategic way. If you know you have human rights abuses in your supply chain, you have to know why. Is it because of a lack of enforcement of your company’s human rights policy? Or is a lack of transparency into the supply chain?
You have to connect the issue (human rights abuses) with at least three identifiable root causes (and their sub-causes) in order to understand the tactics to put into place to address the problem. You can choose to address one, two, or all – but it’s the act of fully understanding the dynamics that makes you strategic.
Is it scary?
If you simply answer those questions, it’s likely going to be an acceptable solution to your company’s strategy. However, it likely won’t be the most inspiring. Employees, investors, and reporters want something more. And you should, too.
Do you want to lead a strategy that is acceptable or do you want to implement a strategy that is groundbreaking?
The question of “Is it scary?” became a mantra for my colleagues and I as we developed what became an award-winning program. We wanted to make the program big, but our ideas got stuck in the comfort of what was achievable. So, with each idea we challenged ourselves: how could we make it scarier? This can come in the form of the scale (how many people you aim to reach), scope (the number of issues to take on, but beware of spreading yourself too thin), or intensity (the timeframe to achieve it in).
As odd as it sounds, it’s probably a good sign you have a breakthrough-level of ambition if you hear an inner voice say “If we don’t succeed at this, we’ll be fired.”
Creating a groundbreaking sustainability strategy is not easy, but these questions should give you a new perspective. What have you found to be helpful? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter or on here.