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Our Insights 13 Feb 2015

Embracing Awkwardness

By Lorraine Smith

Flickr image by Bill Keaggy

From economists to politicians, from consumers to scientists, plenty of people agree that the current approach of many businesses is not sustainable.

We’ve talked about the sheer obviousness of this point, as have many other thinkers and doers working on this challenge. But when it comes to discussing this with people responsible for key decision within these companies, it is frankly a bit awkward. Even for consultants like us who are engaged specifically to talk about this stuff, it doesn’t always feel okay to come right out and say it.

We can discuss the most material issues, engage diverse stakeholders, or develop ambitious goals, all with the intent of nudging decisions in the right direction. But rarely do we come right out and say: Enough already. If significant talent and money at this company aren’t directed towards addressing the challenge and adapting, we’re not going to make it.

Who wants to show up for their 15 minutes of executive committee presentation fame and deliver that speech? Very few people. And so, instead, we have come up with all kinds of ways to tiptoe around the awkward truth. This can be a delicate thing when we are speaking to someone who is responsible for thousands of paychecks, and when there is very little incentive and policy architecture to support this obvious need. Nonetheless, it must be said.

I am not suggesting that those of us promoting a more sustainable way of doing business should become constant drummers of doom, nor that we stop understanding material issues, engaging stakeholders, or setting goals. That would likely only make things worse. I am suggesting that we become better practiced in the art of the “difficult conversation,” that we become bolder and more assertive in our statements of how much better it can and needs to be, in a respectful yet steadfast way.

The following awkward truths are ones to keep handy for those of us having conversations with leaders who can guide businesses towards more sustainable business models, and/or more ambitious, context-based goals.

  1. We will be different. Businesses, and commerce and trade more broadly, have evolved dramatically many times over, and they will keep evolving. This is complex, and getting it right for a viable future will require new ideas. All the answers don’t exist yet—we have to create and embrace them, and do things differently from what we are doing now. There are already some excellent examples and ideas—from Marjorie Kelly’s exploration of innovative ownership models to the Global Opportunity Network’s guidance on the opportunities related to a company’s most material issues — with surely more to come.
  2. It is not optional. We cannot alter planetary boundaries, and we should not suppress the collective forces of humanity that expect respect, decency, and a fair share of what is to be shared. As the primary fulfiller of needs and wants in the world today, businesses can either recognize this blinking truth or get out of the way so the rest of us can thrive.
  3. If you’re not making the future better, you’re probably making it worse. If business leaders can’t answer the question, “How are we enabling a flourishing society within a healthy biosphere?” they are likely not yet in the ranks of those forming an emergent and better kind of commerce. The question needs to be asked, and the answer needs to be proven in a robust and meaningful way. There is an abundance of resources out there to help ask and answer this question, from consultants like SustainAbility to open source tools like the Future Fit Business Benchmark.
  4. Profit at the expense of value is not okay. Some current business practices, such as prioritizing quarterly financial returns over social and environmental value creation, are harmful to people and the biosphere and are therefore to be stopped. Everyone knows this instinctively, and more people are realizing that benefiting as individuals from this approach isn’t okay. Hollywood may glamourize the ideal of individual wealth in tantalizing ways, but deep down we know better.
  5. It is a much more delightful way to be. Once we get past the awkwardness of it all we often hear a sense of relief—even delight—at the opportunity to be part of something richer and more compelling than the steady grind of today’s norms. People are universally drawn to goodness, and this evolving way of understanding value creation simply feels better.

It might be awkward to say these things out loud in certain company, to propose that conducting business can be a beautiful expression of human potential, rather than an exploitation of policy distortions, natural resources and human effort. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, let’s go forth and be awkward.

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