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Ian Mitchell, Founder of SOI, looks back at COP26.

It was remarkable to witness COP26 under the gaze of a world desperate for its leaders to unite and tackle climate change. It will stay with me forever. It brought understanding, despair, sadness, but also a realisation that change is afoot. Hope is in the air.

The more cynical of us will mutter ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ The most common word used by every politician and dignitary was ‘try’. Try is a half-hearted commitment. Either do or don’t.

This left me wondering why, with all the Governments, dignitaries, INGOs, philanthropists, change makers, activists, businesses, investors, and lobbyers, all putting their collective heads together, we can’t create more certainty?

Are we all ultimately like King Canute, deluded humans believing we can stop the horror of the climatic tide coming in? On reflection I have tried to make some sense of this from my observations and apply a practical approach as to how we can move forwards.

One. The role of Governments.

First of all, let’s not be too down on COP26. For systemic change, we need governments to step up and play ball. Whilst there were a lot of posturing, stirring speeches, and deals signed, Governments must now rapidly back up their commitments with actions: regulation, taxation and subsidies combined with genuine commitment to creating a sustainable future in which people, planet and businesses can thrive. This will require their vision to be backed up by an innovative and well executed strategy. 

The good news is that there are already footprints of success. Governments have led us through many turbulent times. Societal values, beliefs and behaviours are constantly evolving. Change happens all the time, and so does our relationship with the environment. Most importantly, significant learnings and developments have already been made around sustainability, sustainable cities, farming, and societies. Governments have proven they have the ability to adapt. 

Two. INGOs must play their part.

Whilst governments do all the talking, it will require the commitment of their electorate to produce positive results. We are all responsible for safeguarding a future in which we can flourish. This is the moment when we must all look ourselves in the mirror and step up. It will not be an easy journey, but deep down we know we must all actively commit. 

Governments cannot do this alone; they must be supported and collaborate with INGO and NGOs. I have great admiration for the incredible work of INGOs. From what I’ve witnessed at COP26 there is an opportunity for them to play a more effective role. These organisations need to collaborate better with one another, align and lead in a co-ordinated manner. INGO’s are trusted, but sadly they are not known for their ability to deliver on outcomes. Donors of all levels need to take a stance, become more demanding of INGOs accountability to drive outcomes to these larger issues. If COP26 said one thing clearly it is this - manmade environmental impact has been building over the last 200 years, and we are all now paying the price. The INGOs need to apply pressure effectively now. 

Three. Businesses can be a force for good.

This leads to my third observation at COP26. Nearly everyone, especially the press, was looking at the big institutions for the answers. They are only part of the solution. Businesses of all sizes, their employees, supply chain and critically their customers need to get involved too. But to do this we need to break some myths. Becoming a sustainable business is good business. It is not about compromise, substandard products, poor fiscal performance. There are numerous examples of businesses with sustainability at their core becoming brands of endearment and completely outperforming the traditional business models.

The visionary leaders, the entrepreneurs, the pioneers have already started this journey. They must be supported by governments, NGOs, but also by employees who agree with their vision and their goals.

The advisor and consulting community also need to make a conscious decision to stop elevating businesses that are actively bad for people and the planet. They need to start genuinely adding value to businesses seeking a sustainable future. Sustainability can become mainstream. Sustainability equals success.

This was the area that created the most concern, the most uncertainty. Too few businesses are putting sustainability at their core. If leaders globally committed to building sustainable businesses and consumers supported them, we won’t need government or INGO intervention.

Businesses, their senior management teams and their investors need to be presented with a proven framework and mode of operation that is better than the one they have now. They need to see a low risk, pragmatic sustainable organization, one that delivers strong investor returns, relevant and innovative products, engages and unites their employees, suppliers and customers around a single organizing idea. That is the business of the future.

This is achievable. To transition and embed sustainability at the core of your businesses is not as hard, expensive, or risky as one may think. The solution for businesses is already in the room and very accessible.

Four. The need for action.

My final major observation from COP26 was talk of targets that were many decades away. It is a convenient way to have the kudos of making the commitment, but not being in the hot seat once the deadline approaches. Kicking the can down the road is a well-known human shortcoming. So how do we create urgency and hold governments, INGOs, and businesses accountable now, as well as supporting them?

To achieve this you need to focus on the alignment and maturity of an organisation’s behaviours. If they have the desire to put sustainability at the core of their organisation, and if the correct behaviours are aligned from top to bottom, then the results will follow. Again, the good news is that this has already been mapped out for businesses and organisations alike. The leaders of all organisations need to step up and embrace change. 

My final thought about COP26 is a positive one. We can collectively create certainty. We have proof this works. To achieve this, we all need to make the commitment, create the scale, and accelerate progress. It’s what the people and our planet deserve.

Ian Mitchell is a Founder of SOI.

Following the August release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, there is no denying the fact that many more eyes are now firmly focused on the upcoming 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. Scheduled to take place between 31st October and 12th November 2021, this year’s conference is likely to be the most important gathering yet. When it comes to climate change, the heat has been turned right up (literally) and both the public and businesses alike are expecting answers from those with the power to start making the changes that are not only necessary but long overdue.

I, and many others, believe as a society we are experiencing ‘The Great Awakening’. The global pandemic caused a seismic shock across industries, sectors, and communities, as people from all walks of life woke up to the fact that change was not only possible, but it actually made things better. COVID-19 has provided the impetus to take a look at how we work, live and interact through fresh eyes, and without the rose-tinted spectacles that have coloured the years gone by.

We’ve had decades of businesses simply ticking boxes and complying to CSR. It’s had little impact. Making fluffy purpose declarations had added nothing. What is needed now is a complete change of mindset. The challenges of the 21st century mean businesses must go ‘all in’ and put sustainability at the core of their business plans.

As COP26 approaches, I, and the wider team at Single Organizing Idea, have four hopes:

That business get the message they need to transition quickly

We’ve spent too many years failing to take action, and time is running out. We’ve got less than 10 years to reverse the damage. Climate change is not the next generation’s issue. It’s ours and it’s our businesses that need to change by putting sustainability at their core. A report from the 1970s which predicted societal breakdown by 2050 has shown that we appear to be following its predicted trajectory. Guess what, we’re bang on course for societal, economic and environmental disaster unless we take the reins and change track urgently. 

That said, we need to be mindful of ‘Analysis Paralysis’. We can’t keep wasting time standing still because we’re overwhelmed by all the bad news we’re bombarded with on the daily basis. There is a way forward and change is entirely possible. But we can’t sit by waiting for a solution to spring up, or for technology to get us out of this mess. It’s up to us to start making changes today. 

That businesses start paying attention to gen Z and accelerate opportunities for millennials and gen Z to  influence future strategies

Make no mistake, Gen Z are a force to be reckoned with. This generation is not motivated by money or pretence, as survey after survey shows. They have their eyes wide open and are attracted to businesses that are genuinely making a difference in the world, and to roles where what they do makes a difference, where they can make an impact. They want to be heavily invested in the cause. They want their work to be meaningful. 

Right now in many organisations, these workers aren’t entering into positions of influence, so their voices simply aren’t being heard. Organisations need to urgently create opportunities for younger workers to contribute and meaningfully shape the future direction of the business. By flattening the pyramid an organisation can redistribute power across the entire business and the ecosystem that it supports. In doing so, it liberates people, enabling them to pursue a sustainable objective that comes from the beating heart of the business and not the temps at the top of it. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need for leadership - there is, in spades! But the bottom line is that people organise themselves around a single organizing idea, not under a boss.

That business understand that what comes with a sustainable future are wonderful opportunities

Too many businesses are organised around the need to generate profit for stakeholders, or to cater to the whims of the CEO or the board. The mistaken assumption that you can’t be profitable and be a force for good is also prevalent. It’s entirely possible to achieve both without trading one for the other. 

I often refer to Community Clothing as a shining example of what can be achieved when you combine the two. As a social enterprise, the business as a simple goal; to sell great quality affordable clothing, and by doing so, create jobs and restore economic prosperity in some of the UK’s most deprived areas. They work with partner factories, filling capacity during quiet periods and to date, have created over 140,000 hours of skilled work. And despite the pandemic’s impact on production, in 2020, they created over 10,000 hours of work, delivering a positive impact in Covid hit areas. 

Quite simply, businesses need to take a leaf out of Community Clothing’s founder, Patrick Grant’s book and stop organising solely around the short-term pursuit of financial outcomes. Instead, they need to organise themselves around a sustainable idea that will ensure that all the actions and decisions of the business are guided by a concept that benefits all stakeholders. There’s no getting away from the fact that this is the future, and it’s set to be a bright one. 

That a carbon tax be introduced globally

Many organisations are making the dangerous mistake of thinking simply offsetting their carbon emissions in order to achieve a net zero position is all that is necessary. Ultimately, this just perpetuates the same behaviour rather than actually reducing emissions. Experts have clearly stated that offsetting should only be used in cases where it is particularly difficult or costly to reduce or completely remove the carbon emissions. Implementing a carbon tax globally is one of the most effective ways to incentivise organisations to actually reduce the levels of emissions they are pumping into the atmosphere. 

Evidence has shown that countries that implement carbon taxes see a marked reduction in emissions and other actions which have a significant impact on the planet’s ability to process existing levels of carbon, such as deforestation. 

For example, Costa Rica imposed a carbon tax back in 1997, and since then, it has helped protect and restore lands covering a quarter of the country. In addition, it generates over $26 million a year in revenue, which is then paid to farmers and landowners who are involved in rainforest protection and restoration on their property. 

Carbon taxes have also got the public’s vote, with a recent survey by the Zero Carbon Campaign revealing that two-thirds felt it was a fair way to raise money, and that the income generated should be used to benefit the country. 

I am extremely hopeful that COP26 will act as a catalyst for many who have stood by the sidelines to take action. For ambitions to be made real. Drawing on over 15 years of experience, I know that it is entirely possible. 

Instead of a piecemeal approach to sustainability, businesses need to go ‘all in’ and identify, define and then align ALL their actions and activities with a sustainable SOI (Single Organizing Idea) that ensures they are fit for the future..

The right SOI, set at the core of the business, will ensure the delivery of the long-term economic, societal, human and environmental outcomes and meet the fast-growing concerns of customers, employees and investors demanding change. 

If you are inspired to make a change today in your business, or those that you advise, I urge you to get in touch with us. As a business, our core purpose is to accelerate progress, and together, we can change the world. 

ENDS

Sadly, the latest IPCC report comes as no surprise to me. I’ve been talking about this very scenario for over 15 years. There’s just no getting away from the findings in the report. The IPCC report isn’t scaremongering, it’s a brutally honest look at what humanity will be facing in just a few short years if we carry on as we are. 

Putting sustainability at the core of businesses will help us to avoid many of the worst case scenarios outlined in the report, but we need to get on and do it. Currently, we’re messing about on the sidelines, we’re moving around deckchairs on the Titanic.  It’s no good having companies lobbying for one thing to achieve a status quo whilst at the same time the world is looking down the barrel of disaster. Businesses need to step up and they need to do it now.

You only have to look at the erratic weather patterns around the world from California to Siberia to here in the UK. It is undeniable that things are changing for the worse. But it’s not just about the climate, it’s about society and its reaction to the climate. It’s also about what’s going on in the economy. None of it is sustainable. Real change comes from taking a long, hard look at addressing the four key pillars of sustainability - Human, Social, Economic and Environmental. 

Back in 2018, I wrote a blog which addressed the latest IPCC report at the time. I explained that the report made it clear more than anything else was that climate change is not the next generation’s issue. It’s ours and it’s our businesses that need to change by putting sustainability at their core. 

Fast forward to 2021 and nothing much has changed. The time to act was then, and the case for change is even more urgent now.  In fact, a recent review of a report from the 1970s which predicted societal breakdown by 2050 has shown that we appear to be following its predicted trajectory. We’re bang on course for societal, economic and environmental disaster  unless we take the reins and change track urgently. 

I want to stress that it’s not all doom and gloom and there really is a way forward. Now is the time for amazing innovation to take centre stage. But we also need to stop thinking that technology is going to get us out of this mess. It won’t.  It’s up to us. 

Putting sustainability at the very core of all businesses is now more urgent than ever and doing so will enable us to create a future which benefits people, society and the planet. The tools are available to help businesses transition and it is much easier and quicker than many think. 

But we’ve not got much longer to get started. In fact, we should have started years ago, so we’ve got some serious catching up to do. 

The pandemic has been a real game changer when it comes to recruiting top talent. It has led to a mass awakening across multiple generations of workers who are now asking themselves ‘what do I actually want to do, and what jobs will make me feel fulfilled’? They are now choosing to work for organisations where their job feels like a natural extension of their lives, who they are, what they believe in and what values they hold close. 

Recent research has revealed that over half of those surveyed considered sustainability as a key factor when deciding what company to work for, but 1 in 4 don’t believe it is a priority for their employer. Attracting green talent, particularly Gen Z’rs, is no longer something which can be bluffed with fluffy purpose promises, some slick branding and a bit of ‘do gooding’. These candidates have their eyes wide open and are attracted to businesses that are genuinely making a difference in the world, and to roles where what they do makes a difference, where they can make an impact. 

Many organisations are making a concerted effort to move towards more sustainable operations, but in the vast majority of cases, it’s simply not enough to tip the balance. If an organisation doesn’t have sustainability at their very core, they simply won’t pass the litmus test with their dream candidates. 

Fundamentally, the reason why many big businesses are not attracting green talent is because they are either being led by the objective of making money at all cost, or they are being tied in knots by trying to achieve that outcome whilst, at the same time, managing part of the business which are intent on pursuing an entirely separate strategy. History has shown that this is well worn ground, and it continues to be a recipe for disaster. 

The good news is that almost any business can change and be a force for good if the people who run it so desire. The secret to success comes with placing sustainability at the very core of the business in the form of a Single Organizing Idea (SOI ® ). 

A Single Organizing Idea (SOI ® ) ties both the economic and social strategies into one single strategy, the outcome of which is not only commercially sustainable but also meaningful for those wishing to find fulfilment in what the business does.

What’s perhaps most significant for attracting green talent is that, a SOI ® replaces the CEO as the organising principle. It flattens the pyramid and redistributes power across the entire business and the ecosystem that it supports. In doing so, SOI ® liberates people, enabling them to pursue a sustainable objective that comes from the beating heart of the business and not the temps at the top of it. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need for leadership - there is, in spades! But the bottom line is that people organise themselves around an SOI ®, not under a boss.

No matter the size of your business, with a sustainable idea at the core you have the opportunity to change the world and to change people’s lives. And what could be more compelling to a potential new employee than that?

ExxonMobil has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons again this month. In addition to revelations that they are actively manufacturing and using ‘forever chemicals’, it has also been disclosed that their lobbying activities have contributed to the delay of legislation relating to PFAS (forever chemicals) and plastic pollution. 

It’s glaringly apparent that the Oil & Gas industry as a whole faces significant challenges when it comes to operating in a way which makes them part of the solution not part of the problem. Their entire business model is built on the continued production and sale of resources that cause significant environmental damage. In a world where there is increasing pressure to cut carbon emissions and explore clean energy alternatives, they risk becoming obsolete unless they can shift their entire existence towards more sustainable outputs. 

Like many of its counterparts, ExxonMobil purports to take the global climate effort seriously. 

A quick look at ExxonMobil’s sustainability report provides us with the following statement ‘​​ExxonMobil is committed to producing the energy and chemical products that are essential to modern life and economic development, in a way that helps protect people, the environment and the communities where we operate. This includes mitigating the risks of climate change.’ These recent revelations would indicate that their actions are not aligned with this sentiment, and in fact, are working directly against it. In a nutshell, it’s ‘purpose washing’.

What’s more, leaked documents in 2020 reported by Bloomberg reveal that ExxonMobil projections would see their emissions increase by 17% by 2025. As these figures pre-date COVID-19, the subsequent drop in global demand for oil means the company has undoubtedly entered panic mode. A Channel 4 report was quoted as saying ‘ExxonMobil’s strategy is all about doing anything, everything, so it can go on doing one thing, pumping oil and gas to make money.’ 

None of this is surprising when you consider that the company has never made a commitment to lower oil and gas output and does not appear to be working towards becoming carbon neutral. They are also suspiciously cagey about releasing their emissions forecasting. 

Turning a blind eye, not totally committing or just doing enough is a risky business. ExxonMobile are what I would classify as a ‘Squatter’. It doesn’t pretend to have a social purpose and maximisation of profit for the satisfaction of their owners or shareholders is the ultimate goal. They are short term merchants who aren’t going anywhere fast, but, be under no illusion, they face eviction at any time. 

In its current guise ExxonMobil’s days are numbered, of that I have no doubt. The businesses of the future will be ones who don’t produce ‘forever chemicals’. Instead, they’ll be based on ‘forever SOIs’, where sustainability is placed at the very core of their business strategies .

An SOI (Single Organizing Idea) does exactly what it says on the tin -- it’s a::

  1. Single: one
  2. Organizing: systematically coordinated
  3. Idea: concept that benefits all

An SOI ties together both the economic and the social strategies of a business into one single strategy, the outcome of which is not only commercial viability, but societal sustainability. SOI is about meeting the demands of today’s employees, consumers, and investors. It’s about total commitment of all its resources towards to a progressive plan of action that can be executed, monitored and measured in real time. It’s not about ticking a box or making cheesy ‘doing well by doing good’ platitudes. SOI is the means to get on and do it. 

Examples of forever SOI’s set at the heart of strategy include Volvo’s ‘Safety’, Logistics business Euro Pools Groups ‘Maximising Circular Value’ SOI and New Zealand construction business Hawkin’s ‘Building Better Communities’. There are many more.

SOI is not a silver bullet and questioning long-established conventions, taking on indifference, and convincing people of a better way takes leadership, patience and guts. But the process is much more straightforward than those invested in the status quo would have us believe and with an SOI at the core, unlike ExxonMobil, any explanations about what your business is doing and why will always be anchored in truth and what actually matters to those invested in seeking a better way forward for their businesses, people and the planet. 

It’s been an extraordinary week.

In a major coup for people and the planet, Exxon Mobil shareholders voted two new directors onto their board this week to ensure the oil giant does more to tackle climate change and re-direct its business toward a sustainable future.

In the same week two other giants of the corporate world were brought to their knees by those determined to make a difference. Chevron Corporation, the owners of Texaco and Noble Energy, was forced to adopt a resolution by its shareholders to reduce its carbon emissions. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, British-Dutch oil and gas multinational Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to lower its greenhouse gasses by 45%.

What we are witnessing is an ongoing battle for the future of businesses not just being fought in the oil industry but right across the corporate landscape. It’s a battle between the old guard defenders of the status quo and a fast-growing vanguard of investors, consumers and employees tired of listening to the self-serving motives of short-term focused business executives and financial opportunists. Time is quickly running out for those that believe that profit comes before people and the planet.

Sustainability is moving to the CORE of business strategy -- which is exactly where it needs to be in the 21st century. Treating CRS/ESG as a ‘nice to have’, a bolt-on afterthought or a ‘social licence to operate’ is no longer going to cut it.

Transitioning and re-organising your entire business around sustainability* is no doubt a daunting prospect, especially if you don’t know how to do it. But be assured it can be done and tried and tested tools, technologies and approaches developed over many years exist to ensure change is not only possible but practical. Change is deniable but inevitable. Those that grasp the nettle will not only ensure that their business survives the coming decade but thrives in a new way that meets the needs, wants and desires of all stakeholders.

*Environmental sustainability, societal sustainability, human sustainability, economic sustainability.

Neil Gaught is the conceiver of Single Organizing Idea and the author of two books, CORE and the CORE Playbook

The only option is to change

If Sweden’s most famous writer Stieg Larsson had been alive to write the title for the BBC’s recently aired documentary about Sweden’s most famous person it would have been entitled ‘The Girl With No Option’.

That is the overriding sense one has of Greta Thunberg. Yes, she is courageous and yes she is passionate but above all what drives her is an inner compulsion that leaves her with no option but to carry on asking direct, awkward questions many high profile business and government leaders would rather not have to answer.

Compulsion and repetitive patterns of behaviour are conditions of Asperger Syndrome which Greta was diagnosed with in her mid-teens. She explains it as her superpower and a gift that allows her to see things differently. That an autistic 15 year school girl with a fixation on climate change led to school strikes that swept round the world made her an overnight global icon is the stuff of superhero comic books and to me she is a superhero of our times.

When she first appeared it was the simplicity and delivery of her message that touched me. To see her tiny frame standing strong, totally un-phased by the ego and power of world’s leaders destined to be on the global stage is an image of our times that is hard to shake. Her quest is totally heartfelt and full of the kind of meaning only a child bewildered by the way things are can question. Every time I see her she reminds me of The Little Prince and the central concept I think was core to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s message: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly: what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

But she doesn’t want you to listen to her, she wants us to listen to the science.

I’m sorry to say that no matter the evidence it will not change anything. If evidence was to change anything we would have changed our behaviours decades ago. Evidence, scientific or otherwise does not change anything. What does is a combination of the kind of heartfelt emotional activism we saw snuff out the European Super League, the courage of leaders to take on the status quo and practical, fit for purpose, tools, innovations and technologies that allow us to leapfrog over the barriers that stand in the way of progress.

The tools, innovations and technologies already exist. The question is where are the leaders? The ones that actually care, recognise the urgency and are bold enough to stand up and say, ‘the time for change is now’.

In my experience it is when the leaders of businesses are motivated not only by the many commercial opportunities that exist in having a greater purpose than making money but a need and desire to do what matters most for people and the planet that we make real progress. Those who have engaged with the concept of a Single Organized Idea have done so because it makes commercial sense for sure, but the deal breaker is always that they know it matters.

When I wrote CORE: How a Single Organizing Idea Can Change Business for Good back in 2017, the world hadn’t heard of Greta Thunburg and public activism wasn’t the force it is today. I went on a world tour with the book, visiting 15 countries, participating in dinner debates and roundtable discussions with business leaders, sustainability experts, and academics, with big, heavyweight companies like Blackrock and Visa. I asked them all the same question:

‘Why is it that we’re not making progress?’ The answer was unanimous.

They said, ‘The evidence isn’t enough, we actually need leaders who are going to stand up and change things and we need tools like SOI to make the change possible’.

Greta said in numerous speeches that people don’t need to listen to her, they should instead look to the science. I respectfully disagree. We’ve known about the science for years and it's not made a scrap of difference. I think Greta is mistaken; it is precisely her voice, her passion and her conviction that has resonated with so many people and made her the force she is today. It is that same conviction that we need to see in business leaders, as ultimately, they are the ones with the power and influence to initiate the corporate change that is so desperately needed.

Social change – or, if you must, social impact – is wickedly hard to measure. But in order to produce the change we want, we need these measures to be robust and meaningful. It’s too important a tool to waste.

Most social impact measurement fails by ignoring our inherent autonomy as individuals. Different people react to the same things differently. Initial reactions might look similar, but closer inspection will reveal differences. Multiplied out over many people and over time these differences can amplify and interact in ways that fundamentally undermine simple casual explanation.

Let’s take as straightforward an example of a social intervention as you can think of – vaccinations. By definition, effective vaccinations prevent a terrible disease and don’t make people sick in other ways. The first vaccine is almost as old as the United States. Today, vaccines protect billions and save untold millions of lives. It is fair to say that vaccines are the major contributor to the massive increase in human health worldwide over the past two centuries.

And yet, in the grip of a global pandemic that has caused over 2.7 million deaths and thrown the whole world into a deep economic recession, 15% of health workers in America refused a COVID-19 vaccine when first offered. And twice that level of Black American health workers refused the jab. Why?

The answer is simple, and if we’re honest with ourselves, understandable; they don’t trust it. Despite two centuries of spectacularly successful science and health benefits, a shocking percentage of American health workers do not trust the COVID-19 vaccine. Or maybe it is more correct to say, they do not trust those behind the science, be they in government or industry.

Hindsight is 20-20, so let’s bring this back to measurement. How might we, looking forward, earn trust and belief in our actions to change society for the good? How might we use measurement as a tool to accelerate progress and create sustainable prosperity for all?

Single Organizing Idea offers an answer to this question that we want to hold up. SOI® is a change management system that any organization can use to integrate sustainability and social impact with its commercial objectives. The end benefit is sustainable prosperity for all.

Step One: Recognizing that proprietary IP is not a trustworthy basis for accelerating progress for the good of all. SOI® has set out its system in detail in a recently published playbook.

Step Two: A company uses the playbook to identify and define its unique single organizing idea (4-6 months).

Step Three: The company rides the wave of energy created in the process to make and execute plans to align itself to its SOI®. This may involve everything from being carbon neutral in its production by 2030 to revising its social impact work to be directly accountable to those experiencing that impact. Each of those plans will have clear and measurable indicators of success that will be tracked and communicated in real-time to internal and external stakeholders. These measures include physical things – like CO2 emissions, pollution, and the use of natural resources. They also include metrics for tangible changes for humans – for example mortality, disease prevalence, birth weights, incomes, and knowledge attainment.

Step Four: The company invites SOI® Ltd to conduct independent, regular assessments that invite internal and external stakeholders to say whether the company is actually living its single organizing idea. Assessments follow six business themes: core purpose, values, positioning, network, success indicators, and strategy implementation. The metrics look to beliefs, values, relationships, and behaviors. By communicating the results of these independently administered assessments, the company gets in front of those who will call them out as greenwashing, purpose washing, or even “woke washing”.

Step Five: The transition to alignment with your single organizing idea is a major undertaking. Assessment scores will highlight the need for improvement actions beyond the ongoing alignment plan activities from Step Three. The SOI® measurement system calls for the creating of learning loop teams, with clear mandates to understand the underlying causes and co-create solutions.

A company that runs effective learning loops will achieve two things at once. It wins trust across internal and external stakeholders who can see for themselves the company is living its SOI®. And it builds its capacity to learn and improve in real-time by tackling root causes.

It is this capacity to learn and improve, and to do it by bringing everyone along with you, that distinguishes ineffective from effective measurement. Instead of stopping with metrics one sees in social impact reports –indicators like “lives touched” and “training delivered” – SOI®-led companies publish all those activity and output indicators (they have their place), but more importantly they track and report the quality of engagement with stakeholders, the extent to which learning loops are discovering and amplifying proven solutions.

Measuring social change depends upon a guiding star, a call to action, against which we collect and review evidence. Companies that are transitioning to SOI®-led businesses have a top-line metric – The SOI® Alignment Rate – that could literally change the way we change the world; the average number of weeks it takes for a learning loop to discover and implement a solution to a root cause problem, to the satisfaction of the constituents of the problem/solution.

This example of a 21st-century top-level dashboard shows how the business guides the integration of social and economic strategies. Of course, it will have detailed metrics on commercial and overall business performance. This dashboard tells us that:

Measuring is key to the success of any business wishing to embrace a sustainable future. The measurement needs to go both deep and wide in order to have meaning and impact. Businesses that align with a Single Organizing Idea involve internal and external stakeholders throughout the process. This ensures that everyone has a voice. It’s a continual process of reappraisal, assessment and alignment. The end result is a measurement with purpose.

I am embarrassed to admit that at the conclusion of my environmental science class in high school, my thoughts were consumed by how to suppress the devastating facts I’d just learned. I had been taught about how our consumption of greenhouse gases was destroying entire ecosystems, causing the mass extinction of animals, disproportionately harming poorer nations and communities, and I had been fed grim predictions for the future of our planet. What I had not been taught, however, was how to prevent this dismal destiny. I had not been taught about the companies bringing solar energy to remote villages, or the advances in plant-based food production, or the resiliency species displayed when hunting regulations afforded them the chance to repopulate.

This is not to say that we should coddle students, plucking out examples of advances in sustainability to paint a rosy picture of the planet’s future, yet we also must not be scaring them into resignation. I spent the first part of my college career believing that since my interest was not in science, I could not be a part of the climate solution. It did not become evident to me for some time that it would be a fool's errand to address any of the issues I am interested in, whether it be inequality, public policy, human rights, or development, without simultaneously confronting the climate crisis. It is not a noble or ethical decision to incorporate sustainability into any field of work – it is a logical one.

The film Our Planet, Our Business makes that point abundantly clear. Two interviews in the film really resonated with me – one with a Canadian fisherman and one with a Texan mayor, who both explain protecting the planet as a purely logical business decision. In America, climate change has been branded as an issue point of the far left, a point of contention on par with abortion or welfare that the left and right squabble over. Images of icecaps the size of Manhattan skyscrapers crashing into the ocean or sloths clinging onto

a lone tree amid the wasteland of a former forest are used to appeal to our pathos. Yet this strategy has failed to mobilize the majority of people, and it will continue to fail.

Climate change is not a moral issue nor an issue that can be relegated to a certain field. Rather, it is a reality that will permeate every aspect of the business world and as such, it is purely a logical decision to confront it. While businesses have long been the enemies of sustainability, they have the power to be its champions. As Our Planet, Our Business explains, the same innovation and speed that the business sector infused into the Industrial, Technological, and Digital Revolutions can be harnessed into the Green Revolution. This requires a complete shift in the way we approach the purpose and actions of businesses – it’s not enough to just tack on a CSR team or adopt a trendy sustainability motto and call it a day. What, then, is enough?

I stumbled across the answer to this question a few months ago when I discovered Single Organizing Idea and began my internship with them. At first, I worried that their plan to reorganize a business's strategies and operations around a sustainable idea was just another untested framework, albeit an intriguing one. It didn’t take more than a few minutes of research to realize that was not the case. They didn’t have some lofty, nebulous idea for an ideal business world that was out of reach, instead they had spent years developing precise, proven tools to help companies identify, define and align with their SOI®. Their goal is simple: accelerate progress. And they understand the way to do this is by providing businesses with the tools and technology they need to discover their precise, sustainable potential, and then transition to it.

This transition is not only a demand of our planet, it is one of customers too. Millennials expect more from businesses – our generation represents a fundamental shift in seeing businesses’ sole imperative as wealth creation to expecting businesses to deliver some form of social impact. The prevalent misconception is that pursuing the latter requires abandoning the former. Single Organizing Idea is chipping away at that belief, proving that operating at the intersection of growth and social impact provides benefits to all. There does not have to be a trade-off.

There are countless inspiring young people – the Greta Thunberg’s of the world – who see and feel climate change at a visceral level; they are fighting to save our dying planet with a level of tenacity and vehemence many could only fight for a loved one with. While their efforts are significant, we cannot rely on them. They will not be enough. A crisis of this magnitude requires the innovation, speed, resources, and creativity of the entire business sector. As Our Planet, Our Business explains, humans are the greatest problem solvers this world has ever known. Our job is simply to provide them with the direction and tools to solve our greatest problem.

Larkin Dennison is an SOI Ltd research intern. She is currently reading Political Economy at the University of California, Berkeley

Once upon a time, an enterprising young businessman bought a large amount of corn and set sail from Alexandria to Rhodes to sell it at a time when corn was particularly expensive in Rhodes due to a shortage brought about by famine. But what if he knew that his wasn’t the only ship on its way to Rhodes, and that just a day behind his ship was a whole fleet of ships with more corn than the people of Rhodes would ever need? 

Put your feet in the shoes, or perhaps sandals, of this young businessman. What might you do? Sell the corn at a high price, as the people of Rhodes are desperate? Sell it at a low price, as there’s more corn coming? Or perhaps give it away?

The question is taken from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book ‘Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life’

Here’s another philosophical gem from Professor Taleb:

“An honest person will never commit criminal acts, but a criminal will readily engage in legal acts.” It’s a statement that captures the very essence of what is wrong with the way some carry out their business. 

Both examples are of course about ethics, but what they illustrate to me specifically is the idea of ‘getting away with it’.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of this in action. 

Shell’s website is pretty adamant about its green credentials: 

Our core values of honesty, integrity and respect for people – first laid out in the Shell General Business Principles more than 40 years ago – underpin our approach to sustainability. A commitment to contribute to sustainable development was added in 1997. These principles, together with our Code of Conduct, apply to the way we do business and to our conduct with the communities where we operate.

But then let’s compare that to Shell’s CEO comments reported in the Financial Times on 8th December, 2020 by writers Anjli Javal and Leslie Hook.

According to the paper, “Ben van Beurden, Chief Executive, said that oil will continue to be a huge cash generator and the company will expand its gas division. “There is going to be a place for our upstream business for many decades to come,” he told a conference.

Mr van Beurden has form. A year and bit earlier, in an article entitled 'Royal Dutch Shell searches for a purpose beyond oil' published on 27th September 2019 in the same paper, it was reported that the “single biggest” regret for the Shell boss would be abandoning its oil and gas business prematurely. That, he says starkly, is something Shell “could not live with”.

Here’s another. This is what McKinsey say on their website:

Our purpose as a firm is to help create positive, enduring change in the world.

Our approach to social responsibility includes empowering our people to give back to their communities, operating our firm in ways that are socially responsible and environmentally sustainable, and working with our clients to intentionally address
societal challenges
.

Now look at what they said back in December 2020 regarding their involvement with Purdue Pharma.

As we look back at our client service during the opioid crisis, we recognize that we did not adequately acknowledge the epidemic unfolding in our communities or the terrible impact of opioid misuse and addiction on millions of families across the country. That is why last year we stopped doing any work on opioid specific business, anywhere in the world. Our work for Purdue fell short of that standard.

A couple of examples of companies ‘getting away with it.’ Saying one thing on their websites, but behaving differently when it comes to how they operate.

As we decide what kind of future we want to create, I wonder where we all fit in. Professor Taleb’s book establishes that too many people impacting our world don’t have skin in the game. In my book too many people simply aren't walking the talk.

Have a look at these four types of business and decide if your business is. 

Emperors These businesses have jumped on the purpose bandwagon. They are not driven to make a difference but are okay talking about it. Their modus operandi is to make declarations and cite meaningless values to support claims of social purpose that aren’t backed up by actions.

Champions These businesses are proactively walking the talk. Doing good is at the core of their business strategy. The structure, plans, actions and decisions they make are all guided by a Single Organizing Idea (SOI) against which progress is continually measured, shared and celebrated.

Squatters These traditional businesses don’t pretend to have a social purpose. Maximisation of profit for the satisfaction of their owners or shareholders is their primary goal.

Box tickers These businesses aim to do just enough by cherry-picking ‘do-good’ projects, tweaking their governance, making ad-hoc contributions and meeting obligations set by external watchdogs when told to do so.

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If you’re anything other than a Champion, it may be time to take a long hard look in the mirror and ask what sort of business you’re building, and, just as importantly, what sort of society and planet you’re creating. 

If you’re prepared to change take a look at my new book, the CORE Playbook.

It’s aimed at the millions of business leaders who see what’s happening now and are ready to plot a course that goes far beyond ‘getting away with it.’

Containing over 40 diagrams and detailed step-by-step explanations, the CORE Playbook is the most comprehensive resource available for those who understand that businesses have to change if they are to meet the challenges of the next decade and beyond.

The world needs more Champions. If that sounds like you, we would love to hear from you.

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