Written by Astrid von Schmeling, Partner at Purple Ivy AB

While both sustainability and strategy imply a future focus, the latest Globescan/BSR survey reveals that many corporate sustainability strategies are going to be firmly stuck in the now.

A future focus is key to success in corporate sustainability. Staying a step ahead of the current agenda is what enables a company to understand the big picture and become a consistent value generator in the face of rapid changes in society, environment and market conditions. Doing so, however, requires filtering out the noise of the now – a serious challenge at a time when the global events of a single year seem better suited to fit into a decade.

Lack of strategic, long-term thinking
Sustainability and strategy are terms that are inherently forward thinking and a strategy should be in a continual state of evolution. Yet, in the Globescan/BSR survey “The state of sustainable business 2017” few of the respondents expect that priorities in a sustainability strategy will shift dramatically due to a changing business landscape. The July survey compiled input from 300 sustainability professionals representing more than 150 companies, about half of them from North America and some 30 percent from Europe.

The results show that many respondents expect to manage the same issues as they do today, rather than understanding how these issues will evolve and developing a strategy to meet that. For example, only 33 percent of the respondents expect to prioritize scenario planning as a tool to identify trends affecting sustainability and business in 2025 as a way of informing their strategy (ranked 8th of 12 possible alternatives). This is unfortunate, because when it is used in the right way, a scenarios approach catapults a company’s sustainability strategy into the future and helps deliver the agility needed to meet unexpected events.

On the other hand, the survey reveals that many respondents expect to rely heavily on stakeholder partnerships to inform their strategy in 2025. This answer topped the ranking with close to 70 percent considering it a high priority. While a heavy focus on stakeholder dialogue and partnerships can certainly provide insights into the future of value creation, stakeholders can only ever provide an outside-in perspective, and they tend to focus on how a company is perceived at the moment.

What does leadership mean?
Oddly, at the same time that the survey participants indicate that a lack of future focus is likely to continue, they also strongly supported the view that business needs to lead the sustainability agenda. While the sentiment is admirable, leading requires finding new paths and staying ahead of the curve. Will they get that direction primarily from external input?

The survey’s authors concluded that “there is little redefinition of sustainable business,” despite the fact that our fast-changing society demands transformation. And as I’ve already mentioned, keeping your ear to the ground is important, but few external stakeholders can come up with a relevant answer to the question of how your company can deliver step-change thinking. That part of the strategy has to come from within.

Preparing for the future with scenarios
I realize that the concept of incorporating hypothetical future scenarios into strategy work might seem too intangible to be of value. But if you dare to take a leap into the uncertain, you will find that scenarios work will help you develop a clear and relevant vision of the difference your company can make in a changing business landscape. They will also help you prepare for the unexpected.

With your scenario analysis, you are better equipped to map your way forward. You can then chart your path by defining clear milestones, identifying the resources you require and the partnerships you need to help you get there. Regularly review, dialogue and adjust your approach. I am confident that this method will help you navigate through the noise of the now, while staying committed to transformation.