Despite our best intentions, if we hope to achieve aspirational objectives, we must connect them to pragmatic business cases. I see it all too often: Firms come up with great sustainability objectives, like carbon neutrality by 2040, but in the excitement to implement, they unintentionally skip crucial steps in the process. Racing headfirst into implementation results in scope and budget creep and sometimes even puts the ultimate goal at risk.
The urgency of ESG has become a reality, but unless companies take a holistic view of the best, most efficient, and cost-effective approach, the path that looks the fastest may end up taking much longer, or they may not ever achieve their goals at all. To successfully transform any vision into reality, businesses should follow this six-step process: Articulate your vision, build a team, gather insights, synthesize your findings, conduct an impact assessment, action planning, and refine as you go.
Catch the Vision
- Gain Clarity
The first step is to go to the vision-makers and make sure everyone is on the same page. Find out the motivation behind their stated goals: how did their ESG objectives take form? Why did they choose their particular goals? Understanding the context is foundational to ensuring that any implementation plans are inherently aligned with the vision.
- Build Your Team
With clarity and a vision you share with the company leaders behind you, it’s time to build your team. Collaborate across the organization to assemble a diverse team of individuals with a stake in the execution. This team should include field operatives and project managers. Pull in employees with a variety of institutional knowledge, as well as a broad scope of occupational and lived experiences. Consider including trusted strategic partners for a fresh and challenging outsider perspective. The most important part is not to go it alone. You need help, and you’ll need it from a wide and competent team.
Gather and Harvest
- Collect Insights
You have your people — now, it’s time to gather information, analyze it, draw out themes and collate them into actionable insights. If you’re working on converting a gas-powered fleet to an electric one, for example, the information you might collect could be something along the lines of identifying the age of your fleet, which comparable EVs are available on the market and suitable for your application, and how the operating costs compare to the existing fleet. You might learn that the sales vehicles within your fleet have the most commercially viable options for conversion and that the payback period is two years, indicating that this group of vehicles should be prioritized for conversion. Whatever your goals are, sorting insights from the information-gathering process into natural groupings is a most useful exercise. These natural groupings, or actionable insights, will become the foundation of your action plan.
Consider taking creative approaches to brainstorming — such as a group workshop — that may feel less onerous. A professional facilitator can create an open environment and draw out meaningful thinking. One tactic that can help stimulate discussion is for the facilitator to engage with the team using a prepared list of thought prompts. We tend to get stuck in the same old methods of thinking about (and solving) problems. Here, you must aim to break fixedness, a term my company uses to describe efforts to “think and act differently in a useful way” – something that is necessary when we are embracing transformative thinking, and required for thinking sustainably.
- Synthesize Your Findings
When insights have been collected, the findings should be synthesized and reported back to the assembled team. Synthesis is an art; it requires a certain talent that can see the themes, and translate them into concepts that relate to your business and culture. Ask a valued member of the team with this skill to take the lead on this activity rather than trying to perform it as a group. Then, transform the list of concepts into tactics and weight them. A tool that can be useful for this exercise is a Benefit-Effort matrix. This will help the team to narrow the list of items to those that have the greatest returns and serves as an indicator of where additional work may be necessary to quantify the investments and the resulting impacts.
A Concrete Plan For Action
- Conduct an Impact Assessment
Once you’ve gathered all your information — heard from all of your voices — and streamlined ideas, it’s time for impact assessment. This is your chance to define tangible measures and metrics and calculate the overall costs and benefits. The team can use a structured model (i.e., a standardized scoring model) to collectively determine which proposals are the most impactful. Once you’ve narrowed your list down to the most valuable concepts, you can develop a business case for the agenda and vision as a whole. The end result is a concrete action plan, accompanied by a detailed budget request, that is ready to secure approval and sponsorship.
- Refine and Adapt
The final step is refinement, and it comes after you’ve set your plan into action. Refinement may feel like an afterthought, but taking lessons from early data and using it to refine your existing action plan is crucial. Despite all planning, sometimes results simply aren’t what you expected. The earlier you catch variations, the more effective you will be in reshaping your actions and getting future deliverables back on track. Adaptation prevents failure. Schedule check-in posts at routine intervals to ensure that you have a mechanism to facilitate refinement.
MORE FOR YOU
Doing Good Well
Once a mere aspiration, ESG has become crucial to doing business and related initiatives are now table stakes for companies hoping to compete in the global marketplace. No matter how virtuous and authentic our desire to do the right thing, without concrete steps and a plan, we have very little control over ensuring that what we aspire to do gets done. Instead of racing into action to show progress, businesses implementing ESG have the opportunity to make sure they’re doing the right thing and doing it well at the same time. With the proper plan in place at the outset, any company can implement ESG goals and see them through to success.