Posts Taged sustainability-2

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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Australian Sustainability Conference & Exhibition

Australian Sustainability Conference & Exhibition. The essential business event for a smarter, brighter future

  • Multi-stream interactive conference and exhibition
  • Strategic insights into sustainability best practice
  • Practical, cost-effective and sustainable solutions
  • Sustainability thought-leadership from over 50 industry experts


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