Apr 142010

Last week, the Smith School hosted a ThoughtLeadership@Smith session led by Rob Sheehan entitled “Designing the Mission-Driven Organization” at its Baltimore campus.  Sheehan’s newest book, Mission Impact: Breakthrough Strategies for Nonprofits, advocates a different approach to strategic planning that leads to more innovative, creative thinking–and bigger results.

In thinking through the steps presented that morning, I realized that many of them can be applied to companies struggling with developing sustainability strategies, as well.

1.  Metrics that match your mission

Measuring the right things is so critical to achieving–and demonstrating–results.  So how to do you know what to measure?  Think about the mission statement, so to speak, of your company’s sustainability strategy.  Is it to reduce your carbon footprint?  To green your supply chain?  Ask yourself how you’ll know when you’ve achieved your mission, and these are the types of things you should be measuring.

2.  Everyone knows what those metrics are

If you ask anyone in your organization what those metrics are, they should say the same thing.  Sheehan gave the nonprofit example of M.A.D.D., calling it a “Stepford nonprofit.”  When asked about the organization’s mission and how they’ll know when they’ve achieved it, everyone he interviewed there said exactly the same thing.  Studies have shown that engaging employees is key to successful sustainability strategies–so why not make sure everyone knows where the goal line is?

3.  An Aspirational Vision

You’ve got your sustainability ‘mission statement.’  You know how you’ll measure results against that statement.  So the next step is coming up with a vision statement that will inspire action and creativity.  Sheehan said that most organizations approach vision statements analytically–looking at internal capabilities and the external environment and making conservative forecasts.  But instead of starting at the present, what if you started in the future (ignoring present limitations and constraints) and worked backwards?

Create an ideal future picture–complete carbon neutrality, cost savings of $X, etc.–and then ask “how can we use what we have to bring us here?”  Using the traditional analytical mindset limits you to incremental improvements at best.  Sheehan said the aspirational mindset spurs on creativity, empowerment and gives bigger meaning and context to everyday tasks–again, a way to motivate and engage employees in your sustainability initiatives.

4.   Rethink SMART goals

The ‘A’ in SMART goals usually stands for ‘attainable,’ but instead Sheehan said it should stand for ‘almost impossible.’  Why? Because this can lead to breakthrough thinking.  The results are the types of game-changers (like the oft-cited Interface Carpet example) that can revolutionize entire industries.

This raises an interesting question, though–what happens when you set next-to-impossible goals, and then fail to meet them?  Sheehan argued that the resulting increase in productivity alone is worth setting goals like this, as long as you can measure outcomes along the way.

5.   Change the way you think about failure

Failure should be seen as an opportunity for learning.  Learn, make adjustments, and move on.

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