Recently, the consultancy firm Bain & Company published their report Achieving breakthrough results in sustainability. One mind-boggling fact in the report is that the percentage of successful change projects is put at 2 percent. That’s right, 2 percent. A mere two percent of the respondents (300 companies) claim to have achieved or exceeded the expectations that were set at the start of the project.
Just over 80 percent admit to having settled for less than expected or even very mediocre results, while about 16 percent indicate that they failed completely, with a performance level well below 50 percent of what was projected. (When it comes to regular, non-sustainable change projects, the percentages are respectively 12, 50 and 38 percent.) These figures are certainly food for thought.
Suggestions for increasing the effectiveness of sustainable change projects usually center around making public commitments and securing the active support of the CEO. Public commitments to ambitious sustainability goals can help align the company. Aspirational communication, in which sustainability discourse exceeds the requisite minimum and focuses on communicating large goals, also has some value. In PR terminology, this is called ‘talking the organization into being’. Communicating about sustainability is a must – and if possible, should be formally recognised. Holding back in this respect can eventually lead the organization to lag behind when it comes to sustainability. Besides, communicating about sustainability is about more than marketing strategies or accountability functions.
More than a sustainability vision
Respondents in the study cite the CEO’s active support for sustainability as the greatest contributing factor when it comes to the success of sustainability initiatives within the organization – for 27 percent it surpasses the importance of creating employee involvement, which comes in second place with 11 percent. CEOs needs more than a sustainability vision that they want to share, they also need to encourage their employees and – more importantly – set an example. Psychology teaches us that when it comes to the latter, the critical point is to set examples that people within the organization can follow. It’s great if the CEO enjoys driving his Tesla to work, but that isn’t exactly achievable for every employee.
"Our CEO hasn’t got time for sustainability"
Often the question remains, however, of how to persuade your CEO to show his support for sustainability. Again and again, we hear “Our CEO is not essentially value-oriented” or “There simply are too many other competing priorities, our CEO hasn’t got time for sustainability.” An insight from another study indicates that even in cases like these, it is possible to get the CEO on board with sustainability. One good suggestion is to start a conversation on his or her legacy: what is it that the CEO wants to leave behind when he or she decides to quit? An impressive last set of quarterly results? A company that endures for all eternity? Or a company that essentially justifies its own existence as it provides the answer to an important social issue?
That angle might be the most crucial factor in making change projects a success in sustainability terms: make it personal. This is important to stakeholders both inside and outside the organization.