In our global world, many companies and organizations are increasingly finding that their own internal strategies need external stakeholders in order to be most successful. But a different additive approach is to take a more pro-active leadership role with stakeholders and create a powerful strategy together. From corporate to NGO to civic sectors, organizations using a collaborative stakeholder or more system leadership approaches can lead to meaningful consensus and ways forward on solving what I call very complex problems (and some call “wicked” problems!). What works and why?
Most corporate sustainability work requires support from a broader set of stakeholders. Peter Kimmel, who leads the Collective Leadership Institute, frames stakeholder engagement between those that are consultative (e.g. the final decision on what happens rests with the company) and those that are cooperative (e.g. where a company is prepared to take joint action). For example, how to react to new regulatory standards, such as restrictions on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), is a good example of consultative stakeholder engagement with NGOs and others. In contrast, the use and access to some natural resources, such as water flows for a utility with hydro power plants, often requires cooperative approaches.
A different and powerful leadership approach is to actually create a vision and pro-active new policies. During 1994–96, I led a national task force in the Clinton Administration to create the first sustainable U.S. National Energy Plan. This group comprised 58 stakeholders from across the country, from industry, NGOs, academics to government representatives of different agencies. Instead of only inviting potential supporters to be involved, such as environmental NGOs, I also invited opponents, such as the coal industry, to be at the table. Using a collaborative scenario planning approach, we created four alternative futures over twenty years of how the U.S. energy and transportation landscape might unfold. Using these scenarios, we were able to frame elements of a broad sustainability vision and key principles, such as accessibility and cost for lower income groups. A broader definition of sustainability helped many of the stakeholders find more shared values and be willing to agree on new policies. Through an engaging and collaborative stakeholder approach, participants were able to identify important policies to support as part of a new U.S. sustainable National Energy Plan that was unanimously supported by Congress.
With industry, I worked with different stakeholder leaders to create renewable energy shared principles, called the “Carbon Principles.” One of the challenges for sustainability in financial services was the need to amend financing standards for supporting more renewable energy power financing guidelines. By framing and agreeing on defining the problem around renewable energy financing, we were able to discuss and agree on the final set of principles or guidelines that banks could use for encouraging more renewable energy power.
For civic and national complex problems, collaborative stakeholder and system leadership approaches are one of the only approaches to find meaningful and lasting solutions. In Guatemala, after 36 years of civil war, we were able to craft a new national vision. In Colombia, after years of guerrilla warfare, participants realized that they had more in common than separate. In Missoula MT, citizens found that they could find new solutions to regional growth that were more win:win than combative.
What are some important insights? First, identifying a good cross-section of representative participants is key. Without representative participation, those not involved in the work may not support the results. Second, focus on shared learning, not just data! Everyone has their respective expertise, but not all individuals, for example, understand Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). It is important to discuss and reach shared understandings to move forward together. And, finally, genuine dialogue – not just debate – is critical. The word dialogue has its roots to mean “come to shared understandings” versus debate’s roots are “to be beat down.”
In today’s more complex and challenging world, collaborative stakeholder and system leadership approaches need to be part of an organization’s toolkit. These approaches are challenging to organize, but the positive results can be much more that ever imagined.