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 (http://smorg.com.au), 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?