How Can You Attain Sustainability Results? Try Triple-A (AAA)

04/09/2015 04:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

The risks associated with driving a motor vehicle are ever-present. But with the right training and experience risks can be reduced. Motorists have multiple ways to manage risk. We carry auto insurance, we take drivers education, we practice defensive driving (at least some of us do!), and many motorists are members of organizations such as AAA (by the way, AAA has 54 million drivers in the United States and Canada) who provide roadside assistance and a number of other member benefits. Further, with a strong support system (a safe vehicle, insurance, and AAA), you can also hedge any negative consequences should an accident be unavoidable.

Increasingly, governments, businesses, and consumers are trying to get there arms around complex and converging sustainability-related risks: climate, resource scarcity, food supplies, geo-political conflict, economic inequality, disease, hunger, human rights, and so on. These risks are interrelated, compounding the challenge for any one individual or institution to be able to fully assess, let alone address with a concrete plan of action. The world is dynamic. Making sense of what's happening and how to address change is not just a business or government-centric objective, it's a human-centric necessity. Today we are faced with three fundamental truths:

1. The world is rapidly changing.
2. How you choose to engage in what matters amid eminent change will dictate your present and future success.
3. The ability to lead change is real; it resides in your ability to build trust, be accountable, and take action.

To embellish the motorist metaphor, humanity has a lot of motorists, but none of us have the proper training, experience, or education to be behind the wheel of the car. We don't know which direction to drive in, how fast, far, or when to switch lanes. The generation alive here and now is living in an unprecedented time of innovation, technology, urbanization, population growth, and all of the social, economic, and environmental challenges that come with it.

Of late, more and more government and business organizations are trying to measure the impacts of their sustainability efforts. After having devoted a great deal of time and resources to design and implement sustainability initiatives, some organizations are trying to understand if their efforts have yielded an impact, whether sustainability has been more fully integrated into their culture, and if they are truly managing risk while creating a value for their organization.

Managing risk requires a multifaceted approach. Much like managing the risk associated with driving, there are parallels that business and government can adopt to identify, assess, prioritize, manage, mitigate, and eliminate certain risks. Managing risk through the lens of sustainability requires a deliberate and proactive process of continuous learning, improvement, and development. The right systems, training, experience, and processes need to be in place for the lofty vision of sustainability to become a pragmatic action-oriented behavior that results in a positive outcome.

Sustainability is one of those words that carries tremendous emotion, perception, value, and uncertainty. It is a politically charged word, and one that can anchor a business strategy. The word is conceptual and philosophical. And that is the challenge with a word like sustainability - trying to unravel the vision and vast potential in a way that resonates with all people. The reality is that not all people will (or should) agree on what sustainability is. But that does not mean sustainability cannot be defined, articulated, and entrenched within an organization and leveraged as a foundation and framework by which the culture evolves and become unified around a common language and strategy.

The best organizations have discovered that sustainability can be an opportunistic process to continuously pick one's head up out of the sand, extend your antenna, scan the horizon, and broadly assess risk and the changes taking place. Further, by being aware of the environment, organizations are more apt to be conscious of change, and more suited to internalize what's happening in the world so that they are prepared to accept and adapt to change quickly. The climate of society is changing rapidly.

Consumers are asking more of business and government than ever before. In response, business and government need to adopt more holistic and systems-level thinking in the way they manage risk, design products, and deliver services. This fundamental change is an opportunity to bring sustainability into the forefront of government and business. But to have impact, organizations need to adopt a purpose-drive and action oriented framework of sustainability which can provide assurance.

A Triple-A (AAA) framework can provide such support to individuals and organizations trying to mobilize and optimize people and resources toward sustainability. The Triple-A (AAA) structure includes:

Awareness & Assessment - Global changes that affect our life and the life of our children are happening now. We need to be aware, respect, and embrace this fact. Deferring decisions to take action can increase probabilities for negative consequences in our future. By being aware of the world around us we can become more knowledgeable and choose to be more tolerant of change. But awareness alone is not enough. We must also adopt unbiased and holistic ways to assess change. Principles in science, religion, economics, philosophy, sociology, ecology, psychology, etc. each have a place in our ability to assess change. There is no one-sized fits all perfect assessment tool. The challenge is for our generation to observe what's happening and discover ways in which we can interpret and assess change mutually. From there we can derive a stronger opportunity for collaboration and shared commitment to do something about it.

Acceptance & Adaptation - Following awareness and assessment is acceptance and adaptation. But getting to the point of choosing how best to adapt to change requires an acceptance that change is real. Armed with data, information, facts, and broader understanding from awareness and assessment, people can be more deliberate and thoughtful in how they accept change is happening, and which ways to adapt to change. Adapting to and managing change by motivating people to create sound policies and carry out best practices through innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship and which achieve economic, environmental and social value.

Accountability & Attainability - We can't mandate, dictate, or legislate our way to a more sustainable world. Sustainability requires, "you, me, and WE" to collaborate on identifying and prioritizing our needs for today. And WE need to be accountable for our impacts toward the ability of future generations to meet their need. Through our individual decisions and behaviors we have control over our life, and can influence the life of others and the world around us. By choosing to take action on individual accountability, we can choose to engage in a life of purpose and consequence for today and the future. Living a lifestyle just to keep the status-quo negates the possibility of sustainability. To work for sustainability means continually look at our life and ask "What can I do to improve this condition? And the condition of those around me?"

Sustainability is not just about optimizing resources or creating more efficient products and processes. As I often remark in public speaking events, "we cannot buy our way to a more sustainable world." Sustainability is a process, much like the quality revolution, that requires continual monitoring and improvement. At the center of sustainability are people, policies, and practices for ensuring the process of continuous improvement and discover endures.

The Triple-A (AAA) framework adopted by many organizations boils down to having a concrete vision for "attainability." Organizations that are achieving their objectives from sustainability are beginning with the end in mind. They establish the priorities and goals that they want to "attain" and then customize their sustainability vision, strategy, policies, processes, and projects in a way to ensure success.

Attainability is less subjective than sustainability. Attainability can be individualized and requires action and accountability. Sustainability on the other hand feels loftier, less specific and personalized. As a result, individuals and organizations typically become disengaged in sustainability endeavors when it is not "right sized" and tailored to their interests, needs, and capabilities. But when more pragmatic attainability goals are embedded into a "right sized" context of sustainability - the latter can be better defined with individualized targets for every individual, function, and business unit of the organization.

Triple-A (AAA) is a form of assurance, enabling disparate personalities and perspectives to discover their place in the room and role in the process. It provides just enough space and structure so that it can enable individuals and organizations to achieve tangible and measureable results. Although logical and simple, the Triple-A framework is useless without support from strong leaders. Leaders that are attaining a business value from sustainability are doing so because they have defined purpose-driven, action-and-outcome oriented goals for their organizations. Such leaders have created an environment for their staffs and teams to buy into a shared vision of an attainable future, while proving them with room to achieve it, or the "freedom to operate."

In short, everyone on board knows their role, responsibility, and requirements to attain the organizations vision for sustainability. Achieving sustainability requires more than vision. It requires an incredible amount of teamwork, collaboration, and contribution. By establishing concrete "attainability" targets, organizations can be mobilized, aligned, empowered, and accountable toward a shared vision and process for achieving success in sustainability.