Great article on sustainability “Embracers” vs “Cautious Adopters” by MIT Sloan Management and Boston Group, published in Spring 2011 MIT Sloan Management Review  Surprise, surprise, the companies that are incorporating sustainability thinking into their everyday operations and strategic planning are doing better than others. The characteristics the study highlights (in bold with my commentary following):

1. Move early even if information is incomplete. Leaders take don't wait until a decision is fool-proof.  They take smart risks, making sure the company is  flexible and resilient and can take hold of opportunities quickly, but underpinned by solid values based on sustainability thinking.

2.  Balance broad, long term vision with projects offering concrete, near terms"wins." Don't just do the quick hit energy and waste money savers, but invest in culture and infrastructure changes to be able to meet sustainability challenges.  But you need both to sustain belief and financing to meet the vision.

3. Drive sustainability top-down and bottom-up. If you are going to sustainably act sustainably, everyone has to own the vision.

4. Aggressively de-silo sustainability - integrating it throughout company operations. See above.  If sustainability is just the responsibility of a ghetto staff group, it isn't going to continue to evolve and progress.  Sustainability thinking (life cycle thinking) has to be part of the entire culture.

5. Measure everything (and if something doesn't exist, start inventing them). There's a lot of soft stuff in sustainability - the social side and long term reputation impacts - for which it's not clear how to measure.  My concern is that people stop with the easy and lagging measures and don't constantly reevaluate whether the right measures are being used, all in the name of efficiency and baselining "progress."  Measures can quickly become ends in themselves rather than being used to track the effectiveness of the means toward the vision.

6. Value intangible benefits seriously.  This is related to the "vision thing" and core corporate values. Minimize resource utilization and consider whole ecosystem and social system impacts because it's the right thing to do rather than solely relying on quantitative ROI.

7. Try to be authentic and transparent - internally and externally. Don't spin it. Be real and realistic on what you have done and can do, but don't lose the stretch in goals and vision.  Which isn't the same as giving away all your trade secrets, but rather, providing meaningful information to the broad range of stakeholders to verify that you really are trying to do the right thing.

The above attributes don't seem to be so different from any of the typical guides for a successful company - long term thinking, shared values and vision.  What's different is that sustainability demands significantly broader thinking and integration of stakeholders and issues than have typically been addressed by companies.  "Flat world" and global impacts make things considerably more complicated.  No wonder it's the big companies that are leading the way - the amount of information management and social connections required to integrate worldwide systems is overwhelming to smaller companies and the "cautious adopters."

Such "cautious adopter" firms are going to wait for new, cheaper tools and begin by doing the easy ROI first. Fortunately, the study did document more money is being invested in this area across the board.  As a result, there will be incremental changes and maybe some full converts.  Others will be swallowed by the "embracers" or die off as befits unsustainable companies.  The fittest and most resilient will be the winners.

Bottom line:  if a company wants to sustain itself economically, it will need to embrace "sustainability."

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