Active Adaptation – making progress in an uncertain world

By Janek Seevaratnam, Charities Aid Foundation

A new report from Charities Aid Foundation and Forster Communications is urging sustainability leaders to adopt a new mindset of ‘active adaptation’ to make progress in this world of uncertainty. Building on the original ‘Bold Thinking, Brave Action’ report published in July 2020, the research highlights new enablers and inhibitors that are impacting organisational decision-making.

One year on from the launch of our report for sustainability leaders on ‘Bold Thinking, Brave Action’ and the world has fundamentally changed. The impact of the pandemic means businesses are dealing with a growing list of environmental and social challenges that are informed by public opinion and underpinned by economic and political volatilities.

While bravery at an individual level continues to be critical, new enablers and inhibitors have emerged within organisations that are impacting sustainability practitioners.

This blog aims to provide a flavour of our new report that urges sustainability leaders to adopt a new mindset of ‘active adaptation’ in order to make progress in this world of uncertainty, in particular drawing on new enablers and inhibitors that are impacting organisational decision-making.

Active adaptation

Managing the current state of flux requires a new mindset. Organisations still need to be clear about where they are heading with tangible goals linked to the SDGs and Net Zero targets. But the route to achieving these goals must be agile in the knowledge that the world we are living in is extreme and uncertain.

Waiting is not an option; sustainability leaders need to make progress in a constant state of adaptation. Listening, learning and adjusting in order to reflect the ever-changing and often unpredictable conditions. As part of this reflection, we revisited the three organisational factors that enable bravery to thrive or fail:

  • Purpose – why we do what we do and what makes us ‘us’
  • People – who we are and what kind of culture we want
  • Practice – how we do what we do and our ways of working

These are more important than ever with new enablers and inhibitors constantly coming to light.

What is enabling bravery today?

When it comes to Purpose, 85% of businesses are more committed to sustainability than they were in 2020 and 70% of firms believe that COVID-19 has accelerated climate action. Businesses are now recognised as the most trusted institutions in the world – above Governments and NGOs – with 68% of people saying CEOs should step in when government does not fix social problems.

Regarding People, the way in which organisations treated their employees during the pandemic came to the fore. There are now increased expectations from individuals, a focus on wellness and a rise of flexible working models. With prospective employees looking for purpose-driven employers, competitive recruitment and retention are now strong drivers for sustainability action.

Putting sustainability action into Practice has gathered important momentum with sustainability requirements and practices becoming prevalent in the boardroom and increasingly supported by government action. Climate-induced disasters are having an undeniable impact on business and increased scrutiny from investor communities will ensure the issue remains a priority.

What is inhibiting bravery?

Companies and entire sectors have suffered seismic financial impacts, significantly affecting the ability to embed Purpose. Many are putting climate action priorities ahead of social issues in a way which will ultimately create conflict and an unjust transition. CAF research also shows that engagement from leadership continues to be a problem with 25% of employees still reporting a lack of commitment of senior management or the board.

A major People related issue throughout the pandemic is a fragmentation of workforce culture which has built internal siloes with increasingly narrow strategic priorities. Concerns around job security means many are unlikely to speak up. Budget restrictions means that investment in culture and training is limited and many teams are finding themselves without the skills and knowledge of how to respond to new priorities.

Finances continue to be a struggle when putting sustainability goals into Practice. 57% of sustainability practitioners don’t currently feel they have big enough budgets to achieve their KPIs. The immediate focusses of the pandemic have worsened short-termism and only 15% of practitioners say there are links between sustainability performance and executive remuneration.

Critical questions to support active adaptation

We have created five questions for sustainability leaders to consider as they

drive change in an uncertain world.

  1. How often do you review your sustainability goals to ensure they meet global expectations?
  2. What information do you use to ensure your business fully recognises the connection between what is material to you and what is of high importance to external stakeholders?
  3. What level of flex and contingency is built into your budgets to enable you to respond to changing conditions and challenges in the wider world?
  4. How many opportunities do others in your organisation have to reflect on progress against your sustainability plan and influence any changes or adaptations?
  5. What is the bravest thing your company did last year when it came to sustainability and how can you beat it next year?

There is no denying the complexity of the moment. Whatever situation your organisation faces, bravery is now about active adaptation.

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