Advice from Ashridge Advanced Management students

A few weeks ago I had two enjoyable visits to Ashridge Business School. On Tuesday evening I set 20 senior executives a tough question: how can we pursue the opportunity of supporting companies as they shape their context for a sustainable future? On Friday morning I had three presentations. This is what they said.

Note: this post first appeared on the Forum website here.

If you ever get the chance to go to Ashridge then you should go. The gothic revival entrance is gorgeous enough for Hogwarts. The grounds are green. And the teaching excellent (on this last, if you can get someone else to pay so much the better). I was there twice in a week to set a challenge to a group of senior executives on the Fast Track Advanced Management programme. They grilled me over dinner on the Tuesday evening and I returned on Friday morning to hear presentations from three groups.

The problem we set them was a tough one: how can we pursue the opportunity of supporting companies as they shape their context for a sustainable future? That needs just a little unpacking!

Let’s start with why Forum’s approach to change is all about system innovation. Three or so years ago our leading partners kept telling us that they were reaching the limits of what they could do by themselves. They were constrained by things like customer behavior, investor expectation, and perverse regulation. We also felt that progress was too slow and too small. We needed to affect things at the system-level.

So, at the heart of our work we put system innovation – a set of actions that moves a city / a sector / an economy on to a more sustainable footing. Over the last few years we’ve been acting in the global food and energy systems, plus developing our own best practice through hard-won experience.

Then something more surprising started happening. Our leading partners started to ask us how they should go about moving their sector. Nike, for instance, asked for help setting up their ‘Mobilize’ team, all so Nike can deal with the external constraints on their leadership.

Hence the question to the Ashridge students. These leading companies will only be the first with this need. What should we do to pursue this opportunity?

The three groups came back with many ideas, both large and small. The main things I took away:

  • Mainstream business people are ready and willing to engage on sustainability. All 20 of the executives had come across sustainability in their day job. That would not have been the case 10 years ago. One of the groups did a role play: three played directors from a global firm, while one did a sales pitch of Forum’s work – which he did with great enthusiasm. The nature of the role play conveyed to me that the group were convinced sustainability was important to business success.
  • Content that works for specialists in world-leading companies does not work with non-specialists. Put like it is bleedin’ obvious but it was frustrating for the students and myself. It just goes to show that I (and probably most of my colleagues) spend most of my time speaking and writing for a narrow audience. One big consequence of me getting this wrong was that the students answered a different question: in general, how should Forum pursue the opportunity of working with business?. I was trying to ask about one specific opportunity on system shaping, but you would need to be pretty expert to be able to tell the difference.
  • Their one wish: quantitative evidence of success through sustainability. Every presentation and most of the questions focussed on one thing. You can only sell ‘work with Forum’ if you can quantitatively prove the business case. Now, I know that this is not true: plenty of companies work with us without this. Indeed, the responsibility and privilege of being a charity is to operate at the leading edge, where there is little clear evidence yet. So, if there is standardised business case, Forum probably should move on.
    What it tells me is that rigorous evidence will make it a lot easier to move from leading companies to the next waves of fast followers and beyond. That probably isn’t a job for Forum – the fast followers wouldn’t find our evidence credible anyway – but it is an important job for someone. An accounting institute, maybe?
  • To get to scale quickly, focus on where there already is evidence. As one of them put it “You say time is short. So, put your effort into things that have the evidence that would be enough for me.” It is interesting to try and work through the implications of this insight for our work in energy, for instance.
  • Have people dedicated to sales. The students could not believe we don’t have specialist sales-people. Instead, aside from our vital back-office staff, everyone is a generalist. Typically, in any one day a Forum staff member will do some project work, some relationship management, some sales, some line management and more. The Ashridge students said we could only pursue opportunities at scale if we let people specialise – especially have people dedicated to sales. Then each staff member will deliver more value per hour, and Forum will create more change.My response was: that’s a lot of cultural change! There is something valuable in everyone doing a bit of everything (we haven’t needed lots of knowledge management, for instance). And I think our partners experience us as working for wider change, not the next sale. I worry that having Sales People would make the Forum experience more like a consultancy experience. But I am going to see if we can allow a bit more specialisation, and a bit more dedicated resource for business development, so we are more effective and efficient.
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