Strategy for Sustainability: A book review by Bob Morris

Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto
Adam Werbach
Harvard Business Press (2009)

Note: I recently re-read this book and learned even more of value this time.

As Werbach explains in the Introduction, all companies have the opportunity to formulate and then execute a strategy that will enable them to avoid severely damaging if not fatal problems such as those encountered within the last 12-18 months by major corporations such as AIG, Bear Stearns, Chrysler, and General Motors. This book, he adds, “is about developing and executing a company’s strategy that takes into account all aspects of sustainability but that is useful enough to be implemented today. It’s about involving employees and the community in every part of the process. And it’s about survival.” He asserts that true sustainability has four coequal components, all of which must be accommodated by the strategy that is require: social (i.e. acting as if other people matter), economic (i.e. operating profitably), environment (i.e. protecting and restoring the ecosystem), and cultural (i.e. protecting and valuing cultural diversity). “In building a strategy for sustainability, companies must accept that a constant state of change is becoming the status quo. Sustainable organizations celebrate positive action in the face of bureaucracy and indifference.” More often than not, positive action encounters culture resistance, what James O’Toole so aptly describes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Through his narrative, Werbach makes brilliant use of reader-friendly devices, including checklists such as these as well as mini-commentaries such as “Does `Built to Last Mean’ Sustainable?” (Pages 38, 41-42) and Tables such as “Comparison of a built-to-last strategy with a strategy for sustainability (Pages 39-40). He explains how to formulate a different way to formulate a business strategy, how to map available opportunities, how to “set a North Star” and initiate the “TEN” cycle, how to use transparency to execute strategy, engage individuals throughout (and beyond) the given enterprise, how to establish and strengthen a “network of sustainability partners,” and how to develop leadership at all levels and in all areas. My frequent use of the phrase “how to” is intentional, correctly emphasizing Werbach’s pragmatic approach throughout the book.

He concludes with an especially appropriate excerpt from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series: “If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; it is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; `life,’ something that had a mysterious essence about it…” Given that, what does Adam Werbach suggest? “When a situation seems too complicated grasp, grasping it isn’t always necessary or even possible – so do what you can, when you can. Act now.”

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