It's time for business to stop talking transformation, and deliver

It's time for business to stop talking transformation, and deliver

The role of business in delivering solutions to society's current set of big and complex sustainability challenges has never before attracted so much attention.

The spotlight on business's role began to intensify in September last year, when the largest-ever gathering of Heads of Government met at the UN General Assembly to ratify the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a 15-year global framework for sustainable development.

The unprecedented scope and ambition of the SDGs will require new levels of activity from the business community, and already many leading businesses are using the SDGs as a strategic framing device, to allow them to really focus on making a difference in their key impact areas.

Particularly visible in the commentary around Davos was a strong hint of unease that big business in particular might not really understand [the need for transformation]

The glare of the spotlight then became even brighter in Paris in December, where many businesses really did do their bit in gaining an historic climate deal, by signalling the intent for rapid - and much needed - decarbonisation of entire sectors.

And then, last week, came Davos, where nearly 3,000 world leaders and investors gathered again, to discuss the rather obliquely titled 'Fourth Industrial Revolution', where tech and business join in perfect harmony to deliver solutions to societal, economic and environmental challenges, at scale.

So we can relax? Not really. Unleashing the power of business to act as agents of transformative change requires, well, transformation. And, particularly visible in the commentary around Davos was a strong hint of unease that big business in particular might not really understand this.

Many commentators last week referred to 'Davos Man'. A shorthand for two things: a fairly dismal score on gender representation (82% of delegates were men), and a mind-set that believes that simply doing better business will save the day. There is a big difference between better and transformational.

There were also questions about power. Is it right that the wealthiest 1% of the planet decide the fate of the other 99%? I'm oversimplifying of course, but look at representation from the global south (75% of delegates in 2015 were from Europe and the US). Even the Pope had to write a letter reminding the assembled decision makers not to forget the poor.

Time then for business to demonstrate it can transform. Organisations don't only need to transform themselves, they can also take the lead in transforming whole systems.

Here's what I think any business can do to move from misty eyed ambition, to actually getting on with being transformative;

  • Combine the best bits of power centralising (the ability to scale quickly, access to a gazillion gigabytes of data), and the best bits of power decentralising (the digital revolution giving us power to think and act on the issues we care most about), to define a strategy for dealing with your biggest social and environmental impacts which incorporates both these types of assets. Transformation requires understanding there isn't an 'either/or', there's an 'and.'
  • Recognise that there isn't one single approach, but that multiple approaches are needed to create real change. All of our work at Forum for the Future on system innovation tells us that big change comes from a set of interventions; such as product innovation, creating consumer demand, reshaping markets, policy advocacy and more (refer to our Scaling Up Impact framework for more information)
  • Be authentic and honest. About where you are now, and where you need to get to. Transformation towards sustainability is a journey, and no-one has a fully downloaded map
  • Understand the limits of traditional philanthropy. Pouring money into treating the symptoms of the problems won't solve them. Investing capital to create self-sustaining enterprises and remove market barriers to scaling sustainable solutions, will.
  • Create value for both yourself, and the wider system in which you operate. Trust me, the big environmental and social challenges we face will seep through the boundaries of your business, and have the potential to destroy value. But turning your gaze outside your business will allow you to understand these challenges, and create solutions, either on your own, or in collaboration with others, that will create value and better resilience.

We live in an increasingly polarised world. Looking at your world, understanding the polarising pixels within it, and formulating a response is hard. But very doable. The SDGs, COP 21 and Davos all promise transformation; let's now just get on with it.

Image credit: Kenny Louie / Flickr

Sally Uren will be speaking at Globe 2016 Conference and Innovation Expo in Vancouver, Canada, on Transformational Companies, highlighting key qualities and best practices in transformational leadership. In her next blog post on the theme of transformation, she will be highlighting how some leading businesses are not only transforming themselves, but entire sectors.

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