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A more beautiful question

For a while now, I’ve been searching for what author and journalist Warren Berger calls ‘a more beautiful question’ – the kind of question that, with elegant simplicity, can encapsulate a wealth of ideas, concepts and possibilities; that can help to shift the way we perceive or think about something; and that has the capacity to spark breakthrough ideas.

While that kind of preamble almost inevitably sets me up to fail, I think I may finally have fashioned one worth sharing, and it goes like this:

What if business reoriented itself as society’s greatest problem solver?

I use the word “fashioned” advisedly, of course. I don’t claim any originality, save perhaps for the particular combination of words. The ideas and concepts that underpin it are many, varied and long-established – the self-same ones that have preoccupied me (and many others) for years now.

While people may choose different labels to describe the conceptual space here – be it sustainability, creating shared value, purpose-led business, inclusive capitalism or whatever – they are fundamentally united by a common set of assumptions:

  1. That, whatever your views on the role of business, and the capitalist system more generally, in creating many of the problems and inequities we see today, it’s also essential to solving them (as evidenced, for example, by the inclusion of business as a key partner in achieving the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals);
  2. That business, and again capitalism more generally, is perfectly capable of this kind of ‘reboot’ (indeed, as powerfully argued by some smart folks at McKinsey, creating and scaling solutions to human problems may always have been at the heart of how and why capitalism works);
  3. That the fates of business and society are interdependent and it’s in the best interests of both that business steps up to assume this role as a partner of choice in solving social problems (whisper it quietly, but business-based approaches are frequently more effective than government or charitable aid in reducing inequality).

What this all boils down to – what we arguably lost during the cult of maximizing shareholder value, and what we are now slowly rediscovering – is the understanding that the long-term prosperity of business and society go hand-in-hand. Business cannot, and should not, divorce its success from the health and resilience of the social and ecological systems that give it life.

Moreover – in line with Peter Drucker’s famous dictum that the only purpose of business is to create a customer – the idea of seeing business first and foremost as a problem-solving engine, rather than solely a vehicle for maximizing short-term shareholder gain, would seem a much better and broader reflection of what successful companies actually do.

With specific regard to the third point above – and offering an inkling of what reorienting business as society’s greatest problem solver might look like – probably the greatest joy of my current role is the exposure I get to the work of some outstanding social entrepreneurs.

As a firm believer that the sustainability imperative represents the innovation opportunity of a lifetime, understanding and telling their stories (and EY’s role in helping them build the internal capabilities to extend their reach and impact) is something I find endlessly fascinating. After all, in many ways, social entrepreneurs are the purest incarnation of purpose-led business – a mash-up of the social mission of a non-profit with the market-driven approach of business to innovate new products, services or approaches to tackling society’s most pernicious problems.

Take Jibu, for example, a clean water franchise business in East Africa, conceived by brothers Galen and Randy Welsch as a better way to tackle the problem of affordable access to safe, clean drinking water. Its ingenious business model equips local franchisees with advanced, solar-powered filtration equipment that can clean locally sourced water and make it available at a fraction of the price of other bottled water – each franchise effectively becoming a water purification plant for the surrounding community.

More than the question of affordability, the structuring of the business as a franchise also neatly addresses the problem of sustainability (in terms of long-term viability). Whereas donor-funded water schemes often suffer from a lack of local ownership – as a consequence of which, around half of them fail within a couple of years – every Jibu franchise is run by a member of the community it serves.

This puts the very people who benefit from the service in charge of running it, combining their need for clean water with their desire to control their own destinies and build a more prosperous future for their families. It’s a virtuous circle that should see the growth of the business not only provide permanent access to safe water for more than a million people by 2020, but also create 8,000 jobs, in turn providing 8,000 families with a decent and reliable income.

What makes stories like Jibu’s more compelling still is the fact that, more often than not, social entrepreneurs are achieving this kind of success against a backdrop of massive resource constraints. These are master hackers, and you have to wonder what might be achievable if big business took the time to observe, draw inspiration and reverse innovate from their approaches.

Of course, encouraging business-at-large to do so is precisely the purpose behind searching for (and hopefully finding) that more beautiful question in the first place.


Building a better working world

A lot has been written here and elsewhere about the concept of “thick”/shared value – the reconnection of business strategy to delivering social progress.

As I wrote on the Guardian’s Sustainable Business blog a few months back, business must now operate within a completely different set of frame conditions, encompassing the combined forces not only of climate change, population growth and diminishing natural resources, but also (among others) the ascent of Generation Y and increased public scrutiny in the wake of the financial crisis.

To achieve longevity, business needs to recognise these seismic shifts and re-imagine them, not as constraints on business as usual, but as the perfect opportunity to reconnect with disillusioned customers and employees by designing something better.

More than ever before, the business that wants to achieve long-term success must earth itself in a sure sense of why it exists, what it stands for, and why it matters (beyond making money). And that purpose should be self-evident in the very products and services it provides, how it organises itself, and how it conducts its daily business.

In short…

  • Purpose is the key to creating shared value – not some warm and woolly expression of values, but the ‘north star’ around which to build a strategy for enduring growth, based on improving people’s lives.
  • Purpose is the only sustainable way to recruit, unite and motivate all the people a business touches because – while business models may come and go – it’s that essential ‘reason for being’ that remains constant.
  • And it’s purpose (IMNSHO) that now represents the most powerful lever business leaders can pull to achieve competitive advantage – the single best way to demonstrate relevance in an ever changing world, and to build deeper, more lasting relationships with customers and employees who share your beliefs in their very bones.

On that last point, it’s worth drawing attention to the big news at EY last week – the formal accession of Mark Weinberger as Chairman and CEO, accompanied by a rejuvenated brand identity and, in particular, the clearly articulated purpose that forms the new tagline of “Building a better working world”.

Cards on the table, I’m an EY employee, so I’m hardly an impartial observer, but I’m massively excited by this.

An organisation I work for is really putting purpose front and centre – not in a superficial way, but based on deep thought about the essential function of a professional services firm in promoting long-term growth, through providing timely and transparent information that contributes to the critical functioning of the world’s capital markets, for example, and supporting and stimulating entrepreneurship as a key to local economic health.

I hope my colleagues and EY’s clients will feel the same intuitive resonance with this purpose as I do. In any event, I think it’s a bold move that deserves a lot of credit – especially in a heavily regulated industry that naturally tends to inspire a degree of risk aversion and conservatism.

As Simon Sinek hints at in one of my favourite TED talks, most organisations – indeed most people – are perfectly comfortable describing what they do; maybe (at a push) what it is about how they do it that sets them apart from all the rest. But very few nail their colours to the mast of why they do it 

Of course, that’s precisely why it’s such fertile territory for differentiation.

Read it now: Jim Stengel’s ‘Grow’

I loved Ray Anderson’s Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist. I loved Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing. Now there’s a third book to complete the holy trinity of must-read texts on 21st century-style business thinking (not counting my own Live Long and Prosper, of course!)…

It’s called Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s 50 Greatest Companies, by former P&G GMO, Jim Stengel. And while I haven’t even got beyond the first chapter yet, I already know I’m going to be referring back to its pages time and time again.

I don’t need to know all the data supporting Jim’s thesis (though I’m looking forward to uncovering it). All I need to know is what greeted me on the very first page following the short introduction.

To paraphrase that old line from Jerry McGuire, Jim had me at ‘ideal’:

IDEAL (īˈdē(ə)’al), n. 1. The key to unlock the code for twenty-first-century business success. 2. The only sustainable way to recruit, unite and motivate all the people a business touches, from employees to customers. 3. The most powerful lever a business leader can use to achieve competitive advantage. 4. A business’s essential reason for being, the higher order benefit it brings to the world. 5. The factor connecting core beliefs of the people inside the business with the fundamental human values of the people they serve. 6. Not social responsibility or altruism, but a program for profit and growth based on improving people’s lives.

Mo Farah and survival of the ‘fittingest’

Competition. It’s a common enough word, but also one, it turns out, that is frequently misinterpreted. Particularly in business circles, it’s tended to be understood as ‘kill or be killed’; screw over whoever (or whatever) you have to screw over to get ahead of the oppo; survival of the fittest.

Not so.

Watching Mo Farah win an astonishing 10,000 metres gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics tonight, one of the most interesting things about it was actually who came second – not a Kenyan, not an Ethiopian, but Farah’s American training partner, Galan Rupp. It reminded me of something cradle-to-cradle design guru, Bill McDonough, observed in a great TED talk of his – that the word competition stems from the Latin ‘competere’, to ‘strive together’.

Striving together. Getting fit together. Winning together.

In its original sense, that’s what competition is really about, and it puts a very different complexion on what it means to win – not so much survival of the fittest as survival of the ‘fittingest’. It isn’t about competition as we’ve come to understand it – combative, kill or be killed, where your success is predicated on the misfortunes of others; it’s actually much more about collaboration, where people demonstrate the capacity and ingenuity to carve a niche for themselves beyond the world of the zero sum game.

In short, it’s about finding a way to create shared value and increase the size of the pie for everyone, rather than fighting over how to cut it up.

10 books by the spring?

Given that I haven’t blogged in over two months now (busy, busy, busy!), it’s probably ambitious in the extreme to set such a target for the 55-minute guide series that Kevin Keohane and I started up a couple of years ago.

Nevertheless, with five books already in the bag (attracting nothing but four- and five-star reviews on Amazon too, btw), another three in the latter stages of development, plus ideas for at least another two, maybe it’s not a total pipe-dream?

To these hopefully soon-to-be-completed guides – including the 55-minute-guide to corporate branding (Dave Allen), user-centred design (William Hudson) and cross-cultural communication (Indy Neogy) – it’s also probably about time to add second editions to the books that started it all off, namely The Talent Journey and Live Long and Prosper.

For my part, I just started thinking this morning about my opening gambit for an updated book and figured I might as well share it here. Have a butcher’s and let me know what you think…


Preface to 2nd Edition

So, what’s changed since the first edition of this book was published two years ago?

The short answer, somewhat paradoxically, is both everything and nothing.

Slightly depressingly, what hasn’t changed is the vast majority of companies’ understanding of what it really means to be sustainable.

The ones who get the concepts and arguments laid out in this book have got it for a long time already. These include not only more recent start-ups, like the brilliant Icebreaker in New Zealand, for whom sustainability is the very essence of their business; they also comprise long-established corporations like Interface in the US and Marks & Spencer in the UK, who have recognised the changing frame conditions within which we’re now operating and that their long-term prosperity depends on nothing less than the redesign of core business strategy and operations.

Meanwhile, in general, those who didn’t get it before recession struck still don’t get it now. Indeed, if anything, all recession has done is to entrench short-term thinking.

And yet…

Everywhere I look, momentum is growing. Sustainability is no longer the exclusive realm of hair-shirted environmentalists and pie-in-the-sky idealists.

The need for business to reconnect strategy to a sense of social progress – that creating shared value is perhaps the competitive advantage of the 21st century – is rapidly gaining currency, even in the hallowed corridors of Harvard Business School and other temples of traditional, left-brained management thinking.

When strategy guru, Michel Porter, starts proselytising about a more constructive form of capitalism, you know it’s time to pull on your track shoes. The kind of stuff that people like Paul Hawken, Ray Anderson and Jonathon Porritt have been talking and writing about for ages has finally hit the mainstream!

And for every poster-child of old-world CSR to have come an almighty cropper in recent times (not least BP, whose ‘Beyond Petroleum’ greenwash has come back to bite them royally on the bum in the wake of the disaster in the Mexican Gulf), there’s a story of another major corporation embracing new-world sustainability.

Consider the launch last year of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, for example, explicitly framed by CEO, Paul Polman, “not as a project to celebrate, but a new business model to implement,” based on the fundamental understanding that materially addressing sustainability not only offers opportunities to save costs, but is also a critical engine of innovation and brand equity.

In short, then, the case for building sustainable brands – and for a book that gives sympaticos and sceptics alike a quick and easy way of getting to grips with the big idea and how to action it – has never been stronger.

Don’t worry. While slightly expanded, with additional thoughts and visuals culled from my blog and my practical experiences of consulting with clients, I promise you’ll still be able to read this book from cover to cover in under an hour.

I hope you enjoy it.

Live long and prosper!


First, define sustainability. Then let’s talk.

I’ve borrowed the title of this post from Brian Moss, an MBA/MS student at University of Michigan, who (I’m flattered to say) saw fit to quote my definition of sustainability* in a fantastic piece on his Considering Design + Sustainability blog a couple of weeks ago.

He concludes with the following lines – the importance of which is impossible to understate and deserves further unpicking:

I guess if there is a moral here it is to always remember that the definition of sustainability is context specific, and that the first part of any conversation – with stakeholders, with consumers, with each other – should be to answer the question ‘How do WE define sustainability?’

Amen to that, and – as ever, it seems – it’s the core principle of materiality that holds the key.

Why? Because materiality is the key to demonstrating an authentic commitment to sustainability and is essentially there to be examined and judged along two critical lines:

  1. Company-based materiality – i.e. beyond the thin veneer of corporate philanthropy and cause-related marketing, organisations’ sustainability strategies should (at a minimum) be focused on addressing impacts directly related to their sphere of operations. (For example, if you’re a bank, sustainability has bugger all to do with painting schools in Africa and everything to do with responsible lending and investment!) Better yet, sustainability should be a fundamental design value underpinning business strategy and culture, such that your core products and services are geared towards creating value for the business and for society in one and the same act.
  2. Market-based materiality – i.e. that goal of creating shared value should also see sustainability/business strategy geared towards helping to solve those problems and concerns that most greatly affect society in the specific markets in which you operate. Take my Saudi mobile phone client as an example. In Saudi Arabia, where chronic health conditions like CHD and hypertension are one of society’s most pressing concerns, it’s material to consider how mobile technologies might be applied to improving access to, and effectiveness of, healthcare services.

Much to the chagrin of clients who wish you’d just reach up to the shelf labelled “Best Practice” and pull down a nice, neat cookbook solution, the upshot of all of this is that no two strategies are ever likely to be identical.

The principle of materially dictates the consideration of a combination of contextual factors that will always vary from business to business and market to market. Whilst the basic principle remains constant, its embodiment in strategy and execution are necessarily different in each case.

This is the reason why Brian’s apparently innocuous question is of such vital importance, and why the commitment to real sustainability of anyone (provider or client) who suggests otherwise should be considered highly questionable!


* Sustainability is a perspective on brand and business strategy that inextricably links long-term success with serving a higher social purpose