In this two-part article, TURLOUGH GUERIN explains how environmental and sustainability professionals can lead projects in alignment with an organisation's development agenda.
Environmental and sustainability professionals (ESPs) seek funding for projects, programs and initiatives (PPIs) to drive their organisation's sustainable development agenda. It is a rare organisation in which these PPIs get support in their own right without a business case. As is often the situation, these PPIs never see the light of day, with many being perceived by business executives as part of an environmental or sustainability 'agenda' and/or in misalignment with the organisation's financial objectives.
In the author's experience, the reason for this is that the ESPs are usually the sustainability champions for these same organisations, and their focus is not necessarily on ensuring the establishment and clear understanding of the underlying business case and ensuring close alignment of PPIs to the business. One of the most important skills these ESPs can gain is that of asking a focused line of questioning that can uncover the business needs of the organisations they work for and how their own role and proposed PPIs fit with the organisation's strategy.
This article provides a checklist for these EPSs to use as they conceive, develop, discuss, propose and seek funding for environmental and sustainability PPIs.
As with any other department of a business, ESPs are required to develop business cases in support of PPIs they propose. Yet what is often missing in these cases is a clear understanding of the financial business models of the organisation for which they work. In addition, they tend to use language they are familiar with rather than the language and nuances understood by those in the business with commercial responsibilities.
Understanding the business model is one of those critical issues for ESPs that often go overlooked. Some of this financial information can be elucidated from strategic plans, the annual reports, financial accounts and published financial statements of the organisation. However, not all of the information needed to identify and plan for environmental and sustainability-related projects is found in these documents, and for private companies this information is simply not available.
What is needed by the ESPs is business thinking formed through the asking of business-focused questions that will enable them to determine whether their PPIs align with the organisation's core objectives and whether in fact these PPIs should be funded and progressed.
The purpose of this article is to provide a checklist for ESPs and managers to assist them to get to the underlying business-related issues in the organisations they work in and/or support. While the author recognises the challenges that ESPs face when developing and proposing projects for funding, such professionals need to learn the language of business and be prepared to uncover the business model. This can then enable alignment between sustainability and business objectives.
The questions in this study have been organised around the successful business text and training program Business Think, as well as from the author's experience of working in sustainability roles.
Barriers to adoption of environmental and sustainability projects
The barriers to adoption of environmental and sustainability-related technologies and services are well documented. There are many reasons why environmental and sustainability projects are not adopted. It's a multi-factor challenge, however if the organisation's core purpose is not considered then non-adoption will likely be the result.
The absence of a clear and compelling financial business case is a key reason why environmental and sustainability PPIs are overlooked and not adopted.
Questions for environmental and sustainability projects
The following series of questions and concerns have been developed to support business thinking by ESPs. While these questions apply to any business situation, they have been prepared for an audience of ESPs because of the author's experience and the focus of this article. Even if answers can't be obtained, these questions are, as a minimum, a way to start conversations with the finance, commercial and executive functions of these organisations. They are also meant for EPSs to ask of themselves and their teams.
There are nine questions and concerns overall. In this half of the article, we will look at the first four:
1. Do you know the objective of environmental and sustainability projects, programs or initiatives?
For your organisation to take environmental and sustainability PPIs seriously, you will need to decide on and understand the objective, scope and the end in mind for the proposed PPI. These could involve the following questions, the answers to which should focus on your rationale for identifying and running this particular PPI.
- What is the burning platform or the compelling reason to act or change?
- Do you have a compelling argument for this PPI?
- What is your destination, end point or future state?
- Why would the company want to start on this journey?
- Is it in line with the organisation's business strategy?
- What would this PPI enable the company to do and achieve?
2. Have you ensured the right people are involved?
This should include who you think is needed from the business's perspective. The right people aren't necessarily those people in the business that you think support the environmental and sustainability PPIs. These questions include:
- Is the decision to conduct the PPIs sitting at the right level of authority in the business or organisation?
- Are you considering and, where necessary, working delicately and sensitively with the egos of others to keep the dialogue open?
- Have you checked your own ego at the door?
- What changes do you need to make in order to lead change in the business or organisation?
- Are you choosing this PPI because the best people for the job are involved or just because you are most comfortable with the people already in the room?
- Are you getting senior executive and/or board input?
3. Have you ensured diversity of thinking and encouraged those involved to get curious?
Ask questions and gather perspectives from your across the company. Promote diversity of thinking. Ask others, as well as yourself:
- Are you being sufficiently curious?
- Have you jumped to a solution too soon?
- Why work on this project and not another?
- Do your suppliers and customers think the PPIs would be worthwhile?
- Are you involving all the critical stakeholders of the organisation?
- Will the PPI help build these relationships or put them at risk?
- What would your competitors do if they were in your position?
Turlough Guerin is a non-executive director on several boards including Bioregional Australia Foundation, a champion of the global One Planet Living framework. He is an advocate for sustainable business, strong and effective climate governance and is a Fellow of the Governance Institute of Australia.
Image: Thomas Drouault, via Unsplash.com