What is the opportunity for business of the UN Sustainable Development Goals? It’s a chance to put sustainability at the heart of business strategy. It’s a chance to inter-connect Strategy, Sustainability, CSR, Brand, Product Design, Manufacturing, Supply Chain and HR behind a single mission. It’s a chance to play a part in creating a regenerative future for humans and the planet by engaging the collective intelligence of your organisation.
But how do you do it?
There are many routes to Rome. Global organisations like Unilever or VF Corporation start from a point of vision and strategy and cascade outwards. But I believe the real opportunity of the UN SDGs is around activating the collective intelligence and engagement of your organisation behind a new quest. It’s a brilliant framework to deliver not only strategic business advantage but to create a deep sense of purpose and engagement for all stakeholders at every touchpoint and experience.
Here are some key steps any organisation can take to galvanise the process of engaging collective intelligence through the medium of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Set A Vision, Present a Business Case
If you’re just one visionary person at this stage who needs to convince the senior leadership that aligning with the UN SDGs is a good idea, time to get your ducks in a row.
- Find allies – who else can you co-opt into the vision? Demonstrate how it could benefit them, their department and their career.
- Gather case study examples of how other organisations have benefited by aligning to the UN SDGs; you’ll find plenty here and also in Sustainable Brands archives
- Set the context by framing the future challenges of a sustainable planet and world and the part all businesses should play
- Showcase the vision for your particular business – not at this stage the specifics of what might be done because you want to allow stakeholders to do that – but how this alignment could change the reputation and performance of the business
Engage and Explore
Once you’ve got the go-ahead, it’s worth starting to build a team of Champions across the business even at this early stage. Try to get at least one representative from every department, country, group etc on board so that you’ve got a wide reach. Although this kind of project might sit naturally within the sustainability team, try to convene a team that is widely representative.
Your aim at this stage should be to define how you can reach and engage with all your stakeholders from the beginning of the project.
One of the best ways to gather views is to hold workshops where the UN SDGs are explored and explained. People who aren’t aware of them need time to learn about the objectives contained in each goal. This is an excellent time to canvass informal opinion about the key issued your employees and stakeholders care about.
It’s also a good time to begin to ideate and explore areas in which your stakeholders passions could align with your business in a second round of workshops or as part of the first. Although you are looking for alignment with your business operation, be open at this stage to unexpected adjacencies.
External facilitation of workshops by people with experience in systems and lateral thinking, or clean language to help probe ideas can be helpful. Not everyone is comfortable to reveal their ideas in public forums in case they are dismissed, so you need to create an atmosphere which encourages everyone to feel secure to speak up.
Explore Existing Alignment
Once you have gathered a sense of where your stakeholders interests and your business operation aligns, it’s time to understand exactly where you are in relation to The Global Goals right now.
You can do this in different ways. You can choose to map your business to all the Goals or you can choose to select obvious Goals that it is clear your business has a direct link to or the ones that have come up during your initial stakeholder engagement piece only. Or a combination.
Your team members from different parts of the business then have responsibility to carry out an assessment against the Goals selected. Often at this stage they need to extend their capacity and enrol others from their department in the project.
This can take some time. You will want to explore every touchpoint of the business. Not only internally but through your external relationships too. For manufacturers, this means the whole supply chain.
Sometimes stages 2 and 3 can be done concurrently.
Brand the Vision, Set New Goals & Strategic Direction
Once you have your stakeholder input and your alignment assessment in place, you can progress to setting new targets for your alignment with the Global Goals you have chosen together. These can be across internal processes and policies, integrated into supplier relationships, woven into brand strategy and product/service design and development. You have an opportunity here to knit business strategy, brand, CSR, sustainability and HR together behind one cohesive strategy.
This is where you integrate all the collective intelligence from your stakeholders and align it to the areas where your business can have impact. To have maximum impact, your goals should align to what your business does. Otherwise it becomes another non-aligned CSR project or sponsorship. You may need to seek help here with lateral thinking to ensure all of your research and ideas are filtered to align with your business or you may find the perfect alignment easily.
- A manufacturer of plastic toilet brushes might be looking in the area of health, water/sanitation, responsible manufacturing (plastic).
- An accountancy firm might look at partnerships for change to encourage more opportunities for women.
- A haulier might look at partnerships to measure and monitor air pollution around schools or help refugees into work.
It’s vital to take into account not only the timeframes for change internally, but also where people are culturally in relation to the project. This is a good time to explore values, worldviews, and find any cultural entropy in the organisation.
Creating a brand story around the vision creates engagement and encapsulates the mission in a way that everyone can understand. Unilever is Sustainable Living. Vf Corporation is Made For Change. The Principality of Wales is Wellbeing for Future Generations.
It is important to set the vision and direction but present the journey in such a way that you bring the majority of people with you. The long term goal can be very ambitious, but if the work that needs to be done feels unachievable at this stage, people will be overwhelmed and disengage.
Staging the strategic direction is critical to success. If you do not have access to excellent strategic communications internally, this is one place where you might want to seek external help.
Metrics for Change
Closely aligned with staging the strategic plan are metrics for change. The vision sets out the change you want to achieve at the end of the project. The metrics help you understand the progress you are making towards the final vision.
Agree on the length of time the project for change will take – it could be 20, 10 years, it could be 5. Break down the journey into appropriate milestones. Milestones will be markers in the sand where you think significant progress will be achieved.
Let’s take an internal process like packaging as an example. Stage 1 might be reviewing all existing packaging Stage 2 might be examining the market for opportunities for change and evaluating time, process and cost of change. Stage 3 might be experimentation with one product group or brand. Stage 4 might be wider adoption Stage 5 might be to achieve fully biodegradable and recyclable materials across the organisation.
Ask each Champion and department to put forward incremental target goals across the milestone markers you have set.
A Culture of Transparency, Radical Experimentation & Storytelling
You’re ready to start the journey. This kind of visionary change for an organisation is an adventure. It’s a quest to be part of a regenerative future for humankind and our planet. Like all great stories it will have triumphs, disasters, tragedies and heroic endeavour. To sustain a long journey takes a number of key qualities:
- Creativity & Imagination – the kind of creativity that is rooted in creative problem solving. Lateral thinking, being able to join the dots between action and impact.
- Systems Thinking – being able to see in systems, being able to understand relationships between adjacencies and how unexpected impacts could occur during change
- Empathetic Communication – being able to ‘feel the air’ as the Japanese describe it, being able to monitor and understand how people are coping with change, how to ‘stage’ communication so that you bring the majority of people with you all the time
- The Opportunity Mindset – which is helped if people develop creative and systems thinking – they will start to see opportunities to advance the project wherever they look
- Radical Experimentation & Resilience – shining a light on everything you do, both successes and especially failures, makes failure normal and takes away the fear of change. Developing a culture of adventure and experimentation, where constant learning is the aim and regular open discussion is embedded into the processes, is essential to success. Transparency, shifting communication from annual pain to regular gain is key.
- Storytelling – become brilliant storytellers to share your journey internally, with all your stakeholders and with the world. The world needs great examples to follow – yours could be one of those.
The SDG journey is a long one; a deep and lasting commitment by an organisation to play a part in a regenerative future. If we can help you at any stage of the UN SDG journey don’t hesitate to get in touch.