Sunday, January 3, 2010

Thinking different, and differently

Sustainability is an intellectual frontier, or maybe akin to 16th maritime exploration.  Most of what it will involve is currently unknown, and will occur largely beyond the horizon line of our current perception.  It will play out on uncharted waters and wild lands that also are un-mapped, filled with uncertainty (and no small amount of peril) and great opportunity.  Many enterprises will die.  But others will richly profit.  Extending the metaphor, some will be dashed on the reefs and shoals of these new seas, while others will reap great fortunes--both as competition dies off, and as new resources and innovations are utilized.

Admittedly, this is a perverse comparison, because the sustainability ethic is so firmly rooted in practices that emphasize less exploitation and less extraction.  Which is why this discussion resides in the intellectual realm: sustainability is not about using more/different natural resources.  It is about optimizing the single greatest resource any of us (or collectively, all of us) has: the human capacity for innovation.  Ram Nidumolu, C.K. Prahalad, and M.R. Rangaswami have written smartly about the correlation between Sustainability and innovation in the Harvard Business Review, and their paper is well worth the 30 minutes it will take to read it.  At the same time, thinking about the Sustainability/innovation link in more day-to-day terms is equally helpful. 

Innovation is often an organic process--it happens with or without intention or planning.  But innovation is only successful when it moves off the drawing board, out of the laboratory and moves into practice.  As a result, one of the lessons to apply in developing any sustainability initiative is to properly assess and then prepare to overcome the entrenched bias you will face.  Why? Because face them you will. The effective Sustainability program necessitates migrating people away from very safe, very comfortable, very familiar and--as measured in current dollars--very cheap ways of doing business. They won't want to do it, so you will have to persuade them.

If Sustainability requires innovative thinking in business operations, it requires an equal measure in how you market it to internal stakeholders.  Your first challenge: the general lack of understanding of sustainability--especially how industrial inputs (including extractive activities for raw materials, including fossil fuels) and waste outputs drive Global Warming. This reality will force you, in effect, to master two new languages: not just that of sustainability, but also that of stakeholders who control the decision chains that can improve your firm's utilization practices. The key: developing sufficient fluency in both languages that you are able to translate on the fly. You must be able to speak comfortably, easily and authoritatively in order to be effective.

We are still on the Sustainability frontier; settling wild lands requires both conviction and hard labor. Instead of clearing hardscrabble land for a homestead farming, Sustainability experts are moving aside the rocks of resistance that are borne of status quo. Your tools are not a crow bar and horse-sled. Instead, you have to deploy the communications tools of the sales/marketing/lobbying/outreach advocate, because you are going to be in a position of migrating people away from very safe, very comfortable, very familiar and--as measured in current dollars--very cheap ways of doing business. They won't want to do it, so you will have to persuade them. If you haven't internalized this material to the point where you can translate your messaging in a split second into the way others view the world, you mission becomes geometrically harder.

You must understand that you are fighting against entrenched interests.  There are many dollars at stake, and probably careers, reputations and no small amount of the particular brand of comfort that complacency breds.  Innovation and the competition of a marketplace of ideas creates losers among established firms, corporate officers and industry opinion leaders.  People will not surrender these positions easily. But the charts to success are out there; you just need to become a master navigator. Good luck.

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