Posts Taged corporate-social-responsibility

What’s your story: Why every sustainability program needs a narrative

While it is great that many enterprises have decided to take on a myriad of initiatives and actions within their sustainability or CSR programs, have they truly clarified what the outcomes are?  And if not, is that a problem?

Well, without a clear and compelling narrative describing our sustainability strategy, how can we engage stakeholders with respect to what we are trying to achieve when quite possibly we don’t know what the end goal is, ourselves? And in a world where it is difficult to grab the attention and commitment of stakeholders, both internally and externally, you need to do more than flick them a dull plan.

AS I noted recently in my whitepaper on why sustainability programs often fail, you need a narrative, one that can be fleshed out by leaders to create a story.  I’ve been won over by the need to engage people with more than facts; a story – specific to an enterprise and its opportunities, challenges and the environment in which it finds itself – one that connects with people’s emotive sides.

What’s in a narrative? For me, a well-crafted narrative sets boundaries regarding:

  • The scope of the program (the WHAT)
  • The key activities (the HOW); and
  • Possibly, the key stakeholders to engage or work with (the WHO).

But most importantly, where I think narratives for sustainability programs could be especially potent is when they encapsulate just what is the fundamental objective that you are trying to achieve.  The WHY.

Just as many companies are successful by connecting their strategic direction with a compelling purpose, so too sustainability programs should fulfil their huge potential to engage stakeholders and provide clarity with the use of a great narrative that explains the WHY.  Just why are we doing this?

Have you ever thought about your own, personal, WHY, or your narrative?  That get’s people thinking (that can get people thinking about changing jobs or careers).

Anyone who has visited my website will have seen that Phoenix “exists to support transformational change that benefits enterprises, communities and the environment”.  That is my WHY; that is what keeps me going – to support transformational change in the reputation and performance of enterprises as a consequence of facilitating them to strategically advance transformational contributions to social and environmental issues within communities.  And I work towards this WHY through the services I offer.

What could they look like?

Here is a very different example to get you thinking.  It’s from a community proactively dealing with interconnected, wicked problems such as high unemployment, high truancy, poor reputation and crime:

By connecting our community, we will reduce the impacts of drugs and alcohol, mental health issues, domestic violence and other violent crimes on our community.  Sustaining a long-term mindset, we will facilitate this by involving and educating disadvantaged families, transforming school attendance, and enabling and partnering with those who wish to make a difference in embedding positive behaviours throughout our community.

Just think about it, it’s quite confronting; it humbles many of us when we think our enterprise has real challenges with figuring out how to tackle issues!  Well, this narrative for a truly wicked problem still contains the WHO, WHAT, HOW and WHY.  Does your enterprise have in place such a statement for its sustainability strategy so that you know what it strives to do?

For many, that question might be met with an awkward pause however, awkward or not, it needs to be raised.

The value of a narrative

Creating a narrative obviously helps with engaging stakeholders because it summarises the directions of a strategy / plan / report into just a few compelling lines.  While people may not remember a narrative word-for-word, generally they can remember the “gist” of the direction.  How many plans has your enterprise had where you can remember what they are trying to achieve?

But a narrative helps with so much more.

Crafting a narrative can engage stakeholders because the best narratives take a participatory approach to their development.  It isn’t just one team that develops the ideas on their own; influential stakeholders are also involved, which in turn, raises the potential to engage them when it comes to delivery of the narrative.

Importantly, it forces enterprises to think strategically.  I believe that is a huge problem with many sustainability programs – that they have been created with little rhyme or reason to them.  Instead, the development of a narrative helps enterprises focus on what is important, relevant and where it can get the biggest bang for its buck – internally and externally i.e. on issues of materiality.

Similarly, thinking about the why – a program’s  fundamental objective – really forces enterprises to think about why do they have a sustainability program in the first place.  Just what is trying to be achieved?  What are the outcomes sought?  DO we have this program to help improve performance?  Or to innovate new business models?

And finally, thinking strategically forces enterprises to consider tradeoffs.  That is, by crafting a narrative, enterprises soon come to a point where they realise that they will never have enough resources – time, people or money – to do all that they want to do.  They can never be enough to all causes.  Accordingly, they need to think about where they can advance a genuine contribution efficiently and effectively and therefore, if some of the initiatives or actions are really necessary.

But wait! There’s more!

For a recent sustainable development project, I built on the use of a narrative to engage and educate stakeholders on what the strategic direction would be (in this instance, the narrative described above) by calling on a top graphic designer, Tone Bullen from Smorgasbord (, to draw the narrative:


I am finding that people really connect with these drawings because the narrative becomes more than words or facts; it becomes visual – and they end up appealing to people emotionally about “what could be”.

And isn’t that what we want?


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Ocearch shark research, sustainability and the need to fathom context: A case study

This experience, for me, highlights just how important it is to know your context when developing and delivering sustainability and sustainable development programs. Using the story of Ocearch shark research, I wasn’t always going to talk about context; not until I realised that I didn’t know the story’s context, myself, and still don’t fully…..

What Lurks Beneath The Surface…er of This Blog

If you haven’t heard about Ocearch, it’s an American not-for-profit that researches sharks, generating data on their movement, biology and health. The outcome they hope to achieve is a balancing of protecting sharks while enhancing public safety.

On Australian TV recently, it was reported that Ocearch wished to work locally to study Australian great whites, through tagging and monitoring, as the organisation does in the US and South Africa. The involvement of a man in the TV program whose brother had been taken by a shark powerfully reinforced that Ocearch’s ability to monitor sharks at 15 minute intervals could provide hope to other families in the future that no-one else may need to go through such a terrible pain.

And importantly, Ocearch has committed to making the data available in real time.

However, this great news was negated by CSIRO, the Australian, and Western Australian Governments saying no to Ocearch’s offer of assistance, reportedly $2 million in value. The various reasons given by the parties included:

  • WA’s Department of Fisheries’ program was “fully committed this year”;
  • That the strict ethical and safety standards upheld by CSIRO and Australian researchers may not be upheld by Ocearch; and
  • CSIRO has maintained an active research program with over 250 white sharks currently having electronic tags in Australian waters.

This was going to lead me to write an article about how organisations too often focus on doing things right versus doing the right things and consequently, how this “protection of turf” obstructs collaboration on sustainability and sustainable development programs. And we need more collaboration if we are going to make genuine inroads.

But is it that simple? That Ocearch does some great work but is seen as some kind of threat by governments and their agencies?

Because the more and more I dug, the more I saw a very different side to the story. Indeed, there has been quite a lot of criticism of Ocearch, itself. For an organisation portrayed by some critics being too media-savvy for their own good, there have been concerns raised about the effectiveness of the monitoring as well as whether the tags, attached by harpoons, traumatise the sharks. Furthermore, it has even been alleged that Ocearch’s work in South Africa lead to the death of a bodysurfer killed by a shark attracted to the Ocearch boat by staff chumming the water.

Spending the Time, Upfront, to Understand Context

I’m not even going to try and draw a conclusion on this story; I just don’t feel confident that I have anywhere near the understanding required. However, to me, it emphasises the importance of the commitment needed to understand a context and understand the impacts of our individual worldviews and organisational cultures. This is particularly the case where decisions are to be made that will affect many.

Knowing the context will result in improved decision making and subsequently, improved and more engaging sustainability and sustainable development programs.

I want to quickly show how the Ocearch context could be enriched for the major parties using a brilliant tool called causal layered analysis (CLA). Through considering a hierarchy of root causes to a problem from a number of compared perspectives, participants move beyond the usual systemic or social reasons for why a problem has occurred (the litany) to unearth how one’s worldview has contributed to the problem and even to the myths or unconscious dimensions of the problem.

Following is a hypothetical CLA for the context in which Ocearch and the other stakeholders may find themselves as if filled out by those players:

Ocearch and Media
Government and Agencies
Environmentalists and Academics
Litany (Problem) Loss of too many lives

We know nothing about sharks and their movements

Sharks are dangerous to those enjoying the water Complexity of interaction between people and sharks

Ocearch is playing up fears and harming sharks

Systems / Societal Collaborative and wish to work with governments

Tagging and monitoring with involvement of scientists

Committed to sharing data in real-time


Alarm systems

Shark nets at beaches

Anger from parts of community and media towards governments if there is a death

Sharkfin soup

Gill nets and overfishing

Risk perception (that sharks take more lives than is the case)

Savvy Ocearch gaining much attention from compliant media – like reality TV

Worldview Information is power

Patriarchal government does not know what is best for people

We have the answers – patriarchal view

Man is master over his domain

“NIMBYism” of many people towards sharks

Vital to wellbeing of ecosystem

Media doesn’t work in grey areas

Myths / Metaphors Power to the people! Jaws Okay, cue cameras!

Hence, the CLA could give the different stakeholders interested in sharks an epiphany about why they may be obstructed by one another – simply put, they just have not considered the issue from each other’s perspective and acted accordingly.

Context Fuels Engagement Towards Sustainability and Sustainable Development

Using the diagram below as a primer, too often sustainability and sustainable development programs are developed from the very right of the diagram.  That is, rather than take the time to understand different views on an issue, enterprises go immediately into solution mode, thereby developing programs full of ill-considered actions.  Often efforts are placed into mirroring what “leading enterprises” are doing.  This followership continues to lead to programs that are not only irrelevant to specific enterprises, but just enhance perceptions of these one-size fits all programs being nothing more than greenwash.


Starting at the left, forces enterprises to understand their context – both internally and externally – through good engagement. It helps overcome their collective and unconscious biases.

And understanding facilitates collaboration. Using the Ocearch conundrum as an analogy for sustainability or sustainable, there wouldn’t be government programs separate to Ocearch’s efforts; there wouldn’t be suspicion on the part of environmentalists nor turf protection.  Instead, I would anticipate that not only would the duplication be removed, but there would be more innovative solutions to such a complex issue being trialled and the attainment of real and beneficial outcomes.

Shouldn’t that be how sustainability programs also function?

Further Reading

Anon. (2012). Shark Wranglers’ series premiere: Crew member jumps into the water with Great White Sharks.  Huffington Post.

Brannen, P. (2013).  How researchers are tracking great white sharks. Wired.Co.UK

Hayward, P. (2003). Facilitating foresight: Where the foresight function is placed in organisations.  Foresight. Vol. 6 (1)

Inayatullah, S. (1998).  Causal layered analysis.  Futures.  Vol. 30 (8)

Orr, A. (2015).  WA Government cold on world-class OCEARC H shark tagging.  WA today.

Seelye, K. (2012).  What do sharks do in the deep? Device may tell.  New York Times.

Sunday Program homepage (2013). Questions for the government.

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SeaWorld, Ikea and Beyond Sustainability 2.0: The Need for Corporate Authenticity?

Have the concepts of sustainability and corporate social responsibility done more harm than good to industry? And if so, where to next? Does the future lie in “corporate authenticity”?

That was what I was reflecting on recently, having just viewed the documentary Blackfish – a documentary that made me feel numb for having watched it. It is that powerful.

If you haven’t seen it, Blackfish tells the story of how SeaWorld in the USA looks after its killer whales. In particular, it was alleged that the killer whales live in conditions so cruel that they have led to whales causing the deaths of other whales and three people. It was further alleged that SeaWorld knew that there was an extreme risk associated with allowing human contact with the whales but proceeded anyway, perhaps with the focus that they, the whales, are such a huge money spinner.

The Curse of Sustainability & CSR

That got me thinking about the old world attitudes that are still prevalent This is a world where superficial sustainability or corporate social responsibility programs are still too often used as a smoke screen – greenwash – by enterprises while they make short-term profit at the expense of society and the natural environment.

Are genuinely negative impacts upon people, animals and the environment acceptable if industry is contributing to the growth of the economy and jobs? Or are we at a point where we need to be developing a different way of looking at what is a successful business?

Ikea also emphasises that it wants to have a positive impact on people and the planet. Indeed, it has been held up as a sustainability role model. And yet, it is currently in the press for intentionally avoiding payment of tax on hundreds of millions of dollars revenue in Australia, alone.

To me, thinking about SeaWorld and Ikea emphasise two things:

  1. how powerful the dominant narrative of our time is; namely, that a good society is all about its economy (i.e. the economy and business overrides the importance of people and the environment within which an economy operates); and
  2. the word “sustainability” has become a token. While some leading organisations have identified that making genuine contributions towards social and environmental issues could be a source of competitive advantage, the weight of history still results in an overriding belief within many enterprises that we are masters over our domain (a killer whale is a majestic and beautiful… source of revenue) and we can keep stakeholders at bay as long as we have a program labelled “sustainability”. Or can we?

Australians have a proud history of being able to smell out bulls___. And boy, they can definitely smell it when enterprises are greenwashing in the belief that they can “buy the favours” of key stakeholders.

So have the terms CSR and sustainability become too tarnished? The term sustainability still struggles to gain understanding – and therefore, engagement – because too many C-suiters still think about financial issues alone when they hear the term.

And culturally, too many enterprises see their CSR or sustainability programs as just being some kind of “reputation airbag”! That is, the programs receive little commitment or interest, internally…until an enterprise needs a push with its marketing or is at ground zero with respect to community outrage. And then all too quickly the enterprise is only too keen to pull out the sustainability card.

Yawn. While I don’t know about SeaWorld’s sustainability program before Blackfish, I can see that they now have programs that end in “Care”. Kudos to the marketing department, there, but I doubt that will turn opinions round. Something with more substance is needed.

So, while I may be sticking my chin out, would “Corporate authenticity” be a more provocative, more enduring term? Isn’t that what we want from enterprises in the new world? To be authentic in how they connect with society and the environment? Would that term establish a different mindset, opening up true accountability?

Because I don’t know if there is much appeal or hope in maintaining the status quo…..

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I’m No Fool! – Stakeholder Engagement 2.0 & Beyond

A greater appreciation was gained recently of just how much stakeholder engagement has changed over time. Nationally based participants at the 4th Annual Stakeholder & Community Relations Officers’ Forum held in Sydney, identified that with the meteoric uptake of social media has come an exponential rise in the sophistication within communities which, hand-in-hand, sees a rise in their expectations from interacting with organisations. Potentially, these interactions can result in a clash of values and visions (those of the community versus those of an organisation) creating damaging outrage.

While the organisations represented were diverse, it was fascinating to see how much overlap there was with respect to what now constitutes excellent stakeholder engagement; namely:

  • Stakeholder engagement must be authentic. People smell out BS far too easily nowadays, particularly in the countless community investment and sustainability programs that rarely amount to more than the superficial;
  • Stakeholder engagement must be truly strategic and holistic in consideration. It requires hard choices as to how to use limited resources in the most engaging way possible. This means deepening and collaborative relationships with key opinion leaders;
  • A “one-size fits all approach” won’t work. We need to implement place-based programs that are tailored specifically to local needs if we are to build engagement rather than resistance;
  • Organisations must share control if they are to share the benefits. How scary! If organisations impose their plans – and values – on stakeholders, then outrage will occur;
  • Having a strategy – or narrative – that can be understood and engage the affected. If we are to partner up, I believe that we need powerful stories created by all. But beware! strategy is a rare skill; and
  • Underpinning the narrative with clear accountabilities and expectations.

But where does this “2.0” begin? Well, as strange as it may sound, I believe that 2.0 comes from within the Stakeholder & Community Relations Manager. Powerfully, they have the opportunity to move out from being viewed as a technician to being an influencer, a coach, a driver.

Indeed, they must work above and beyond their positional authority, and must think of themselves always as the “Director / VP of Stakeholder Engagement”. They must be always be bold for they have the expertise, the passion and the compassion.

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What Kind of Organisation Do You Want to Work For?

Achieving Shared Value whilst Avoiding Organisational Ego

One of the exciting concepts being discussed at present is shared value – the integration of corporate strategy and sustainability programs to advance genuine contributions to social and environmental causes whilst creating a competitive edge for organisations that is inimitable.

Shared value, to me, implies truly sworking with key stakeholders. And that means avoiding organisational ego – the mindset that “our organisation is the only one with the right skills to advance genuine inroads into social and/or environmental challenges”. Recently, I heard the statistic that Australia had, ball-park, over 600,000 not-for-profits. Add to that the many sustainability programs tackling causes, as well as government departmental programs – most of whom work in their silos – and that, I truly believe, adds up to too much duplication, fragmentation and completely ineffective resolution of our social and environmental challenges.

To me, avoiding organisational ego means:

  • Truly making a positive impact;
  • Sharing the benefits. All partners benefit with improvements to performance, reputation, and taking away innovative practices to spread across their organisations;
  • Being truly strategic and holistic in consideration. It requires hard choices as to how to use limited resources in the most powerful way possible;
  • Having a strategy – or narrative – that could be understood and engage the affected. If we are to partner up, I believe that we need powerful stories;
  • Underpinning the narrative with clear accountabilities and shared measurement; and
  • An understanding of the strengths each partner brings is paramount.

Each of which deserves an article itself! But, as Simon Sheikh, formerly of GetUp! recently said:

We need to be constantly vigilant against companies trying to green themselves simply for marketing purposes. But at the same time we should embrace those whose very existence will challenge the status quo.

So the question for each of us is: just what kind of organisation do we wish to work for?

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4th Annual National Stakeholder & Community Relations Officers’ Forum

Join me over the next few weeks as I both chair and present at the 4th Annual national stakeholder and community relations officers forum being held in Sydney. To see the line-up and topics visit here.

Watch this space as we will provide regular snippets of topical issues and golden insights from the best in the business including Megan Lancaster, David Hogan, Suzanna White, Kerry McGrath, David Breen, Tara Kennedy, Olga Ghiri, Clare Baker, Michael Tarrega, Brendan Barrett and Simon Robinson who will be presenting and discussing such topics as placing communities at the centre, successfully engaging stakeholders and communities including through digital medium and innovative new channels, managing expectations, valuation of stakeholder and community activities and overcoming adversity.

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AGSM Article – Taming our WICKED Problems

Phoenix founding director David Ross was recently profiled on his distinctive background and shared his views on the opportunities available to corporates with respect to engaging on sustainability matters. Read more here. (actual article can be found on Page 7).

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Presenting at Jakarta Conference
I am looking forward to presenting on Wednesday 4th June on “Using CSR to transform reputation and performance” at the 2nd International Conference on CSR and Sustainable Development ( in Jakarta.
If you are around, come by and say hi!
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Stakeholder Trust: There’s More to it Than You Think

A few years ago, I wrote a blog on communication. It might have been the first I had ever written and it is one that still sticks in my mind while others have faded from memory…..or possibly been repressed!

That blog was on the importance of communication in organisations, from a leader’s perspective.

While I am not going to just rehash the content– although that would save me plenty of time – I thought that some of what I wrote was incredibly valid to large enterprises and how they deal with external stakeholders, be they communities, major associations, or government departments.

You see, I had shared some great ideas from Phillip Clampitt, who has talked about a few different types of communication that exist in professional life, one of which was “arrow communication”.

Much like the physical firing of an arrow, there is an assumption with people who use this method that, sending an email or letterbox drop or information piece in a local paper will result in the target individual or community completely absorbing and understanding what was trying to be conveyed by the author in the first place. Not so.

Having worked on a number of contentious projects facilitating genuine discussions between large enterprises and the different groups they need to engage, there is a lot more to it than arrow communication.

As conditions have changed, enterprises must adapt the means by which they interact with stakeholders

Social media has changed everything


Individuals and communities can now become connected in their efforts
The use of Twitter and Facebook has changed the balance of power between enterprises and stakeholders.When a business from say, the mining, energy, construction or utility industries used to undertake works in a community twenty years ago, community members or other groups had few ways by which they could spread their words of concern if they had any.And issues could be exacerbated by enterprises often just allocating a short amount of time in their Gantt charts or project plans for arrow communication. Even community liaison or reference groups, it could be argued, were often the recipients of arrow communication; in that case, effort was put in to giving presentations without allocating much value to the feedback.The proliferation of social media has meant that affected individuals and groups are no longer alone. They can connect with like minded people across suburbs or states / provinces within frightening speeds. And they can obviously share their concerns or ideas on to how disrupt an enterprise that is disruptive to their own lives.

And communities or groups can be excellent at disruption, further reducing the amount of trust society may have in some businesses.

So why do so many still fire arrows?



Countless enterprises are still accused of undertaking tick-a-box discussions with stakeholders outside their business. Sometimes they actually consult; most of the time they simply inform.I think that there are a few reasons for this:

  1. Community engagement is still seen by many solely as a cost rather than a cost saver
  2. That “people side” of the business, along with proactive environmental management (i.e. above and beyond legal compliance) is always viewed as an add on to a business’ projects, particularly in engineering cultures. This explains the short amount of time in project plans in which “the community is to be engaged by”
  3. The power of social media has not been understood in terms of getting others, including the traditional media, to act. Thus, many enterprises don’t seem to have realised that times have changed. What may have worked 15 years ago with formulaic stakeholder liaison plans are viewed now with cynicism by the community.

Yet, the basics still remain the same

Listening and deepening relationships



But wait. There’s more!

But counteracting stakeholder concerns through enterprises attempting to engage through Twitter just doesn’t work. It is viewed as spin.

What is needed is old fashioned appreciation how to genuinely understand the needs of stakeholders: listening.

I like the term deep listening, which suggests that, to deepen relationships with affected peoples, enterprises should not rely on spin, they should not rely on defensiveness and they should not rely on info sheets.

They should actively seek to understand the views of those who disagree with the enterprise’s projects or operations. Only then do they have a hope of building trust.

And yes, there is more to it than that and so, in coming blogs, I will talk more about building relationships with external stakeholders.

Oh and to kind of avoid arrow communication, I welcome any feedback – as always!


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You Don’t Have a CSR Strategy; You Have a Crappy Action Plan

I am not so sure that some Sustainability or CSR Managers really know what strategy is. When many talk about their CSR Strategic Plan or their Corporate Sustainability Strategy, they are actually talking about nothing more than an Action Plan – a plan that often has little rhyme or reason to it. In fact, their strategy is more like a wish list, tackling those problems that they come across on a day-today basis rather than those that arguably are of greater and long-term value.

So what? Well, without a genuine strategy, you are probably not only wasting your time working on the wrong things, but your enterprise is also rarely advancing a genuine contribution to community and environmental issues because it has spread itself far too thin across all of its sustainability / CSR initiatives. For those managers wondering why they can’t get the interest of managers, both senior and middle, this is often one of the main reasons why.

Enterprises need to be able to develop a statement that clearly and succinctly describes how they will achieve their CSR / sustainability objectives

Strategy is about choices

What are you not going to do?
Put simply, to achieve your objectives, your CSR / sustainability strategy must be clear about what you are choosing to do.Just as importantly, it should be clear what you are choosing not to tackle. For me, this is vital. You are always going to have a limited number of hours, money or people to do what you want. So accept this; do fewer initiatives and do them well.

And understanding why you
are making your particular choices



It would take too long to describe here but, suffice it to say, deciding what you are going to do and where you are going to do it needs to be based on more than a half-hearted SWOT analysis and well, a wish list of ideas. But some of my blogs from last year may provide a bit more background info for anyone who is interested.But, at the very least, your choices need to consider:

  • What is your enterprise’s purpose and what outcomes do you wish to seek from you CSR / sustainability program;
  • Your enterprise’s footprint, from a community and environmental perspective, and where it operates;
  • What are your enterprise’s markets where it competes, the needs of its customers and, just as importantly, the expectations and concerns of the wider community;
  • What often seems to miss consideration, just what skills and competencies does your enterprise have that it could call on to advance a contribution to social and environmental causes; and
  • Importantly, how can your efforts be aligned with your enterprise’s corporate strategy.

Ensure that your strategy is
clear and understood



If Sustainability or CSR Managers cannot succinctly explain the gist of their strategy, how can senior and middle managers – whose support is vital – understand the “who”, “what”, “how?” and for that matter, the “why”?It is therefore helpful to craft a succinct summary of your strategy that clarifies:

  • What are the social and/or environmental challenges and/or opportunities that your enterprise will tackle;
  • What are the key initiatives or activities you will implement to tackle the challenges and opportunities; and
  • The benefits to the enterprise and for your external stakeholders (what are the triple bottom line benefits eg differentiation, reputation, contribution to corporate strategy, economic logic and obviously, how will the social or environmental cause be improved? Advanced?).

This should only require one to two sentences. It is also important for you, your team and stakeholders to be very clear in knowing what you are choosing not to tackle.

This will all require far more planning and consideration than a standard project plan but, considering the alternative – the existing status quo for many – do you have a choice?

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