10 Mistakes to Avoid for Effective Sustainability Decision-Making

You’ve got a great idea for moving your company closer to sustainability, but now comes the pesky problem of implementing it.

As you move from ideation to planning to testing to piloting to roll-out to analysis and continuous improvement, there will be dozens of decisions to make along the way. Any one of them can make or break your idea.

To help your odds, here is a list of ten ways to derail your sustainability idea. Avoid them at all costs. Nine of them come from Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman’s excellent article 9 Habits That Lead to Terrible Decisions, published earlier this month in Harvard Business Review. The tenth one comes straight from my fifteen years in the world of corporate sustainability.

1. Be lazy

As Zenger and Folkman note, this flaw shows up as “failure to check facts, to take the initiative, to confirm assumptions, or to gather additional input.” The first key to successful sustainability planning and execution is being prepared. Have you done your homework—not just about the idea itself, but about the people who need to sign off (and their attitudes towards sustainability), the fate of similar ideas that have been tried in the past, and the resources you will need to fully implement the idea over time?

2. Don’t anticipate unexpected events

Have you examined all the ways that your idea can go wrong? Based on my experience, sustainability plans go off the rails most often in these places:

  • Losing executive support due to re-assignments, turnover, or promotions
  • Being placed on a backburner when other issues come up
  • Becoming underfunded or losing financial incentives
  • Being upstaged by a competitor
  • Not anticipating key customer demands for supplier sustainability
  • Being targeted by an angry (and sometimes unreasonable) advocacy group
  • Failing to account for company culture and not properly engaging employees
  • Neglecting to consider upcoming mergers and acquisitions

Think that anticipating the unexpected can’t be done? “There is excellent research demonstrating that if people just take the time to consider what might go wrong, they are actually very good at anticipating problems,” write Zenger and Folkman. “But many people just get so excited about a decision they are making that they never take the time to do that simple due-diligence.”

3. Be indecisive

While due-diligence is essential, taken too far it can also create inertia. A loss of momentum can derail sustainability decisions for a variety of reasons, and decision-makers need to be prepared to keep moving towards the goal.

One of the key challenges in sustainability is the level of uncertainty. How fast will customer expectations change? Will the federal government ever take meaningful steps towards regulating climate change? What are our competitors doing, and how do we compare? What kind of data do we need to back up a compelling sustainability claim? It’s tempting to sit on the fence until there is a clear answer, but the reality is that by the time consensus emerges, you’ll be left behind in the dust. Figure out how much confidence you need to have to make a decision, and then stick to it. Don’t get stuck waiting for the perfect moment to act.

4. Remain locked in the past

Sustainability is an incredibly complex topic that is changing on an almost daily basis. In particular, the corporate sustainability landscape has been drastically altered in three key areas over the last couple years:

  • Laws and regulation , such as new reporting rules on conflict minerals, disclosure on human trafficking in supply chains, and GHG emissions reduction targets
  • Customer expectations , such as new executive orders on federal green purchasing, ramped-up requirements for labor and human rights auditing, and increasingly detailed supplier scorecards from major retailers
  • Marketing and advertising , such as the new FTC Green Guides for green marketing claims, greater focus on product sustainability through Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Health Product Declarations (HPDs), and updated disclosure standards like the G4 GRI Guidelines and SASB industry standards.

The lesson here is that you can’t rely on knowledge, assumptions, and research from the past to guide your decisions going forward. If you can’t stay on top of the latest news coming out of the sustainability world, consider bringing in an outside expert to update you several times a year. You can save a lot of headaches by making sure your decision-making is based on fresh and relevant information.

5. Have no strategic alignment

Zenger and Folkman write, “Bad decisions sometimes stem from a failure to connect the problem to the overall strategy. In the absence of a clear strategy that provides context, many solutions appear to make sense. When tightly linked to a clear strategy, the better solutions quickly begin to rise to the top.”

Does the decision you are making have a clear and compelling link to your overarching sustainability strategy? Would your colleagues agree? Do you understand your company’s key sustainability goals? Do you understand how sustainability is integrated (directly and indirectly) with top-line business objectives? If not, take a step back and examine the context in which your decisions are being made.

6. Be overly dependent

While bad decisions are often made by a single person, often the problem is more systemic. This is frequently the case when sustainability ideas must be vetted and approved by multiple individuals in the company before action can be taken. If each step in the execution of your sustainability program has to be funneled through a Green Team, approved by a manager, championed by an executive, considered by steering committee, and then approved by a top executive, you are falling prey to over-dependence. Yes, get thorough review and buy-in for the project, but don’t let each micro-step in the process be micromanaged along the way.

7. Remain isolated

“All our research (and many others’) on effective decision making recognizes that involving others with the relevant knowledge, experience, and expertise improves the quality of the decision,” write Zenger and Folkman.

Sustainability decision-making almost always required cross-functional input. Make sure you bring the right people to the table to discuss options, identify resources, and review goals. And always, always ask the question “who are we missing”?

8. Lack technical expertise

Having the right people in the room to compensate for your lack of knowledge on a topic isn’t enough—which is why this mistake is one of the toughest to overcome. As Zenger and Folkman note, “[W]hen decision makers rely on others’ knowledge and expertise without any perspective of their own, they have a difficult time integrating that information to make effective decisions. And when they lack even basic knowledge and expertise, they have no way to tell if a decision is brilliant or terrible.”

The solution? Get the necessary technical expertise in any way that you can. Whether it’s understanding how to read a financial balance sheet, understanding how the procurement process works, or diving into energy management best practices for data centers, you must be prepared to learn enough to make a good decision.

9. Fail to communicate

“Some good decisions become bad decisions because people don’t understand – or even know about — them. Communicating a decision, its rational and implications, is critical to the successful implementation of a decision,” write Zengler and Folkman.

Unless the sustainability program occurs in a complete vacuum (which I’ve never seen happen), it’s critical to accompany every decision with the appropriate communication and engagement action. Do people understand why this sustainability decision is being made? Do they understand what it means for them, their job, their division, and the company as a whole? Do employees understand how they can help the initiative succeed? Do they understand where they can go for more information? A little communication can go a long way—so don’t neglect the personal side of the sustainability equation.

10. Focus on the story and forget the data

While the narrative behind a sustainability decision is what captures people’s attention and emotion, it’s just as critical to have solid data underlying any sustainability decision. As you balance competing priorities and business objectives, the best decisions will be backed up with robust, unbiased, relevant data. It’s the only way you are going to be able to answer the question: “are we getting the biggest bang for our buck?”

Thanks to 2degrees for publishing our article!

Want to avoid making sustainability mistakes? Here are some great sustainability tips from around internet that can be found in one our blog posts.