98% of Sustainability Initiatives Fail. What the …?!

Failing grades without compelling business cases

Last month, Bain & Company published a rather shocking report, “Achieving Breakthrough Results in Sustainability.” The title is encouraging; its findings are not. Based on a survey of over 300 large companies engaged in sustainability efforts, it found that 98% of sustainability initiatives fail. What the …?!

The report provides four guidelines to improve this dismal success rate. One of them is “Highlight the business case.” From my experience, a compelling business case is the prerequisite for the other three guidelines. Executives will not “Make a public commitment,” “Lead by example,” or “Hardwire change through incentives and processes” unless they are convinced that the initiative will be good for the company, as well as good for the environment and society. That’s what a good business case helps them see.

The Bain & Company report also outlines five factors that contribute to successful sustainability initiatives. The most important is “Senior leadership support.” Again, senior leaders will support the program if it has a strong enough business case to earn their endorsement, engagement, and proactive support. Their support ensures that the other four success factors fall into place: “Employee engagement and interest,” “Clear goals and metrics,” “Effective internal communication,” and “Introduction of environmentally friendly policies / processes.”

Finally, one of the five reasons given in the Bain & Company report for why sustainability initiatives fail is “Lack of a a compelling business case.”  ‘Nuff said.

If we are to accelerate corporate progress on pressing environmental and social issues, we need to provide the global legions of sustainability champions with better business case tools. As many of you know, that is why my next book is a free, open-source tool that frames a compelling business case for any sustainability initiative.

My working title for the book so far has been, Sustainability Advantage Ultbook:  The Ultimate Workbook of Sustainability Business Cases. As of today, its new working title is, Sustainability ROI Workbook: Building Compelling Business Cases for Sustainability Initiatives. (Check out its latest beta draft, available now on my updated website.) The new title is a more explicit and succinct description of how the workbook’s built-in return on investment (ROI) calculations differentiate it from my previous business case worksheets. It contains the complete set of business case elements required to gain the “Senior leadership support” that the Bain & Company report says is a key factor in achieving breakthrough results in sustainability.

The Sustainability ROI Workbook also helps determine how high to set the expectation bar. The Bain & Company report describes failure as “failing to achieve or exceed expectations.” The workbook helps clarify and agree on the metrics required to assess the results of the sustainability project, to avoid misunderstandings and disappointments. The claimed benefits of the initiative need to be high enough to achieve enthusiastic senior management approval, but not mislead them. The motto of good salesmanship is “Under-promise, and over-deliver.”

We need to meet executives where they are and honor their need for compelling ROI information when they assess proposals. If an initiative improves the company’s reputation, grows revenue, saves expenses, engages employees, helps win the war for talent, spurs innovation, meets company norms for payback periods, provides a good internal return on investment, increases the value of company assets, and / or contributes to higher share prices, of course executives will support it.

Armed with comprehensive business case tools, we can reverse the success-failure rates cited in the Bain & Company report. We’ve got them now. Let’s get on with it.


Please feel free to add your comments and questions using the “Leave a reply” comment box under the “Share this entry” social media symbols, below. For email subscribers, please click here to visit my site and provide feedback. The slides used in this blog will be in my next release of my Master Slide Set, to which anyone can subscribe.

11 replies
  1. Jean Pierre Candiotti
    Jean Pierre Candiotti says:

    Looks promising Bob. In deed to show the business case for investment on sustainability initiatives is essential and a mean to measure them would help.
    Kind Regards from Sweden.
    Jean Pierre Candiotti

  2. Anthony Muscio
    Anthony Muscio says:

    For Credibility I suggest you dump the headline “98% of sustainability initiatives fail” because it can not be correct. Firstly most initiatives would have some success and it is not appropriate to mark them as success or fail on some binary comparison. I applaud your effort but starting with sensationalist claims is click bate or false news and is unlikely to win friends from those who give it any more than a glance.

  3. Bob Willard
    Bob Willard says:

    Good point, Anthony. I used that title for three reasons. First, it is like the titles of a couple of other articles / blogs about the Bain & Company report that caught my eye, so it seemed to be a grabber. Second, as explained in the latter part of my blog, it begs the question of how we would know a failure or success if we saw one. Change agents often overlook the need to set achievable expectations and agree on the metrics by which success will be measured when the initiative is complete. Thirdly, the report was a reminder that sustainability initiatives fail without senor executives’ support and that a compelling business case is needed to gain their support. So I felt the credibility risk was worth it. 🙂 Bob

  4. Steven Dunn
    Steven Dunn says:

    Good discussion points by both. I have for years given companies (particularly the big ones) a lot of lattitude in terms of what we would call “success.” However, after 20 year s of lattitude, I am tired of their excuses and blatent minimalization of the whole topic. Therefore, I am solidly in the camp that most of these inititatives die a slow death from either Bob’s point of lack of top support, or from what I call “moth to the flame” in other words, they flitter on to whatever else seems most social media newsworthy. After all, sticking with sustainability as a strategy requires a lot of work, and realistically is never completed- not something most short term looking for the next job focused, profit and personal income bonus oriented managers are going to want to sign on to. I go back to my backpacking and mountain climing days- it was always a challenge because as soon as you crested what you thought was the top, you saw another ridge in front of you. A lot of people want to just stop there and make camp. A few of us knew that the extra work would lead to an unbelievable panorama. And then we knew we would descend and climb another mountain in the coming weeks…Or how about bicycling- it seems forever into the wind and uphill, and if you turn around the wind somehow shifts. In the end it takes a lot of perserverance.
    My challenge is trying to explain this to college students and convincing them that this is the better path for them despite what it looks like.

  5. Bob Willard
    Bob Willard says:

    Thanks for the excellent metaphors for the sustainability journey, Steven. The Future-Fit Business Benchmark defines the highest peak. Sustainability champions need to get better at packaging the rationale for reaching the next ridge on that climb, so that executives are excited about even starting and happily invest the effort to reach the next ridge. The Sustainability ROI Workbook helps them define the the short term benefits of reaching the next ridge. Otherwise, they will be daunted by having to wait until journey’s end to reap the rewards of the magnificent view and feeling of accomplishment. Bob

  6. Julie Johnston
    Julie Johnston says:

    Re: “Sustainability champions need to get better at packaging the rationale,” as a non-business person, I’m constantly amazed that “because if we don’t make these changes, our species is going to go extinct and take down most other life in the biosphere with us” isn’t considered a worthy enough rationale for sustainability initiatives in the business world. As in, life ought to trump money.

    (Anyone who thinks that’s “sensationalist click bate or false news” either is ecologically illiterate (as it seems many businesspeople are) or simply hasn’t followed the climate change emergency research.)

    Meanwhile, I came by just to say thanks for your excellent work, Bob! You’re helping me help my students understand the sustainable (and now “survivable,” according to Dennis Meadows) development imperative.

  7. Bob Willard
    Bob Willard says:

    Julie, as a Certificated B Corp, I couldn’t agree more. It’s crazy that today’s business models make environmental and social responsibility an exception rather than the built-in norm. However, if we are going to transform those business models, we need to help companies want to be more responsible. That means we need to meet them where they are and help them see that doing so will not be a sacrifice — it will give them a sustainability advantage, so to speak. We don’t have time to rail against the machine. We need to transform companies into agents of change and help them keep score by measuring progress on things that matters. The “Sustainability ROI Workbook” legitimizes the justification that sustainability initiatives help activate a company’s noble purposes and values, along with the other two usual justifications of capturing opportunities and mitigating risks of inaction. The “Purpose and Values Activation” justification is the thin edge of the wedge. Let’s hope it works as a long-overdue wake-up call to companies that they can do better by doing good. As you say, the alternative is not attractive.

  8. Rory Bakke
    Rory Bakke says:

    Hi Bob – great to have this chance to say hi with a comment: After many years of working with companies and agencies to try to embed sustainability governance, engagement and performance within their organizational models, I have finally understood that while a well built “business case”is still essential, the value add driver that makes the biggest difference to Sustainability thinking and achievement, is whether leaders/influencers understand the impact they are actually having on others in the organization via their behavior and current level of emotional intelligence (EI). Without this transparency, executed using reliable tools that measure EI, there is always a cohesion missing from the business case because it does not allow the potential executive sponsor the positive value of improving their EI in a way that will help to accelerate the organization’s ability to develop the consciousness and competency to practice sustainability exceedingly well! And by the way, this goes for innovation of any kind, as well.

  9. Bob Willard
    Bob Willard says:

    It’s good to reconnect this way, Rory. I agree that a healthy EI quotient is a key contributor to any innovative initiative. I hint at that with the inclusion of “Purpose and values activation” as a legitimate justification in the business case. It can be interpreted as as connecting the initiative to both the organization’s purpose and values, as well as to the executive’s personal purpose and values. Maybe that could act as an EI placeholder? Bob

  10. Rory Bakke
    Rory Bakke says:

    HI Bob – Sorry for the big delay on responding! In my work using EI boosters over the past year and a half, I now posit that EI certainly does connect with and perhaps include purpose and values BUT it is really a measure of how much and especially how someone, e.g. a leader, is impacting the behavior or others in the culture. And this can be measured using some pretty simple-to-execute but profound (in terms of research, correlation and in practice) tools for measuring EI in this way, by how it impacts one’s actions via how that plays out in the behavior of others.So I guess i don’t think that this definition is really adequate. I am working on blending Sustainability with these tools so let’s check in at the end of the year. Best regards! Rory

  11. Bob Willard
    Bob Willard says:

    Interesting stuff, Rory. I look forward to your update later in the year. All the best. Bob

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