I have been foreshadowing my sixth book in my blogs for a couple of years. This week, after six-months of helpful public comment on draft versions, I officially launched the “Sustainability ROI Workbook.” Yes! As a reminder, it is an “e-book” cleverly disguised as an Excel workbook. The comprehensive, fill-in-the-blanks Excel workbook is the e-book. This self-published, open-source resource is a free 7-tool “Swiss Army Knife” for sustainability professionals. Here are its seven built-in uses.
1. Business case tool
This is its primary use. The workbook synthesizes the best elements from 20 leading sustainability business case frameworks. It monetizes all direct and indirect benefits that might be possible from a sustainability initiative and automatically does return on investment (ROI) calculations, based on user input. It enables sustainability champions to support their environmental and social impact proposals with a rigorous cost-benefit analysis that includes the resulting payback period and internal return on investment (IRR). That is, it helps CEOs and CFOs see that the business case for improving sustainability performance is good for the company, as well as for the environment and society.
2. Sustainability literacy tool
Sustainability champions can use the business case line items and built-in guidance to enhance their senior managers’ sustainability literacy. While engaged in formulating the business case, stakeholder managers can be gently tutored on environmental and social issues that may impact company success. Almost through osmosis, they improve their understanding of global sustainability megaforces that could threaten the company and / or present emerging opportunities. Sustainability champions can seed discussions with examples of best practices from other companies and do action-research to find more. Senior leadership will not only know about sustainability issues, they will care about their relevance to company success. Which leads to the next use …
3. Integrated thinking tool
During the business case creation process, the senior management team starts to connect the dots between environmental and social initiatives and their many direct and indirect benefits to revenue and expenses, asset values, market value, employee engagement, and company reputation with important external stakeholders. Integrated reporting encourages companies to track how investments in one area (e.g. financial capital) yield benefits in others (e.g. natural capital, human capital, social capital) and vice versa. An appendix in the Sustainability ROI Workbook shows how elements in the business case can be re-framed using this terminology, highlighting the inter-dependencies of the capitals. The workbook prompts systems / integrated / integral thinking as it reveals symbiotic relationships between creating system value and creating company value.
4. Initiative vetting tool
The workbook prompts a clear definition of the sustainability project: a high-level description of the project and its scope; the business need for the initiative; and the sustainability-related need for the initiative. These dimensions need to be thought through by project proponents. What are the project’s up-front costs and ongoing expenses? How long will it be before the project’s benefits are realized? And so on. It allows sustainability champions to put themselves in their CEO’s and CFO’s shoes and ask themselves if they would approve the initiative if they were those executives … and why. It prompts them to ask themselves the hard questions before executives do.
5. Business model assessment tool
As companies strive to become sustainability leaders, they may find that they need to tune – or even transform – their current business models in order to reap the full business benefits that are possible if they were to achieve their aspirational “North Star” sustainability goals. There are financial implications of embracing a circular economy; of improving security of energy, materials, and water; of improving the wellbeing of customers, communities, and employees; of eliminating polluting waste and being restorative to nature; and of preparing for a carbon-constrained world. The Sustainability ROI Workbook provides a generic, comprehensive framework by which to assess the resulting impacts on the company’s cash flow, income statement, and balance sheet – and to determine whether the company’s current business model interferes with capturing the full potential benefits.
6. Trust-building tool
The workbook includes a section on the importance of the “Human Factor” when building the business case for a proposed initiative. The credibility of the business case depends on the quality of the data and assumptions used. Getting access to that data and experience requires engaging with appropriate managers during the creation of the business case. The collaborating managers co-develop and co-own the justification for the sustainability initiatives. They buy into why the initiative is one that they want because they see its direct and indirect benefits to the company. They are proud to co-propose it – which avoids turf wars and bruised egos – and commit to help manage and monitor it to ensure that it is successful. If sustainability champions respectfully engage important internal stakeholders and do not exaggerate potential benefits, they build a foundation of inter-departmental trust and credibility. In any organization, a bank of goodwill with senior leaders is gold for change agents.
In a way, this collaborative, co-creation process adds a “leadership development tool” to the portfolio of workbook uses. Sustainability champions using the business case tool are immersed in a just-in-time leadership learning lab. They practice situational leadership as they interact and influence important, but very different, senior people. Sustainability professionals improve their business literacy as they learn how to “talk accounting” with MBA-trained business leaders. The business / accounting literacy of sustainability professionals is enhanced as they use the tool – it helps close the sustainability-business literacy divide from both sides. Overall, sustainability advocates improve their confidence and competence so that they, and others, see that they are ready for more influential roles in the organization.
7. Conversation starter tool
The workbook gives sustainability champions an excuse to connect with managers whose support they need. Starting with a question helps. For example: “I’ve been wondering whether we can cost-justify using more renewable energy. You may have already wondered this yourself, or maybe looked into this before, so it would be great if we could build on that experience and see whether there is better justification in today’s market, using the latest technology, than there might have been a few years ago. Would you be interested in looking into this together?” You honor their role, their experience, and their turf. Ask, don’t tell.
If we can deploy the Sustainability ROI Workbook into the toolkits of the global legions of sustainability champions by the end of 2018 – which is my “mission impossible” goal – the ripple effect from leading organizations will help take us to the world we want, in time. Users are encouraged to use it as a foundation on which to create additional tailored versions for specific sectors or users, for other technology platforms, in other languages, and in simpler formats. More bluntly put, my hope is that creative users will rip it off, plagiarize it, and help it go viral. That’s the intent or it being a free, open-source resource.
If we tap into all these uses for the workbook in all organizations, not just for-profit businesses, we can accelerate all their sustainability journeys. We can use it as a “Swiss Army Accelerant.” Let’s do it.
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