Mind the Gap: Understanding Sustainability and Managing To Do Something about It

We all have good intentions, well, most of us anyway. Often these good intentions don’t translate into productive action, either due to a gap in knowing how to get from A to B or from a lack of true conviction.

How’s that New Year’s resolution coming from last year..?

Photo credit: jdanvers

The world of business is certainly no stranger to the concept, especially in the context of addressing one’s environmental or social performance. This lack of action highlights an issue that is a key hurdle in contemporary business: the sustainability management gap.

In one of the more concise papers I have read on this topic, a recent report by asherleaf consulting inc. explains the sustainability management gap as, “a gap that exists in [a] management team’s ability to successfully manage the risks and opportunities of sustainability”. The report then proceeds to present a methodology about how the gap can be filled.

Indeed, anyone can talk about wanting to really grab this bull by the horns, but few actually will.

But the issue of how to close this gap is not new, in fact it practically qualifies as an ‘age-old question’ like “Who shot JFK?”, “Where are my keys?” and “What did I do to make her so angry?”

So here’s a new query: if it’s an age-old question, why haven’t we figured it out already?

It is, at least in part, because not everyone is trying to find the answer. As the asherleaf report astutely and correctly mentions, one of key criteria in finding a way to close the gap is actually recognizing it in the first place.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, not everyone sees sustainability as an urgent issue, which is another gap in itself. In fact, there are gaps everywhere, including gaps in knowing how to keep people’s attention, effectively appeal to their values en masse, or even get the scientific community to agree on what’s going on around here (which is a long way off, by the way, since the scientific method is based on the creative destruction of other scientists’ work, but more on that in future posts).

So what’s an environmentally or socially-minded person to do? Which gap or gaps should we focus on?

There’s an old football adage (as in American football) that says, “Don’t start to run with the ball before you catch it.” The anticipation of the next step (or the 300-pound linebacker bearing down on you) can often distract one from catching the ball in the first place, which in the grand scheme of things is the most important step.

Granted, more and more business leaders are ‘catching the ball’ every day so closing the initial engagement gap is becoming easier, however it is all too easy for management to abandon or back away from environmental goals due to the abundance of conflicting information that is available from a variety of sources. If you’re looking for it, especially online, you can find “evidence” to support almost any position – an art the armchair experts in most commenting forums have nearly perfected. Depending on the situation within each specific organization, engaging management may be the most vital gap.

That’s not to say that running with the ball and closing the sustainability management gap isn’t important. It is. In fact (shamelessly sticking with my football analogy), if you suddenly find yourself with the ball in your hands, you had better know what to do with it. If not, you will likely get crushed by your opposition.

Or worse, you may never get the ball again.

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About Daniel Caunter

Who is Daniel Caunter? Daniel is a series of contrasts – Environmentalist MBA, anglo Montrealer, landlocked surfer, serious about fun, and creatively practical. He has lofty ideals, but is focused on finding veritable solutions that will work in reality. He is a work in progress, building a career in environmental business with a focus on stakeholder engagement, project management and corporate communications. Daniel can be reached via Twitter (@danielcaunter), or by commenting here on this site. If you’d like a real-time update on this work in progress, he may even be persuaded to come out for a pint or a cuppa. (Please note: the views expressed in Daniel’s posts are his personally - though sometimes satirical - and are not necessarily those of his employer or other affiliations...so don’t be silly.)
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3 Responses to Mind the Gap: Understanding Sustainability and Managing To Do Something about It

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Mind the Gap: Understanding Sustainability and Managing To Do Something about It | Sustainability Learning Centre Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Melissa Hellwig says:

    Excellent article. The engagement gap is so difficult, but is where more people need to be positioned. Is the one thing that restricts me from being a highly successful consultant – instead I am someone who feels like they are spinning their wheels…………

    • Daniel Caunter says:

      Thanks Melissa!

      The engagement gap is indeed a tricky one. To avoid risk, some business leaders will attempt sit on the fence about sustainability until some sort of verdict is in about the implications of action/inaction. With the scrutinizing nature of the scientific process and the amount at stake for industries with conflicting interests, the truely indecisive could wait forever.

      Two ways to get them off the fence are to approach them with a business case and/or an appeal to their personal values, but those roads are by no means easy either.

      These are complex issues with tough decisions, but that’s what keeps us going!

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