“Do the right thing” is not a business strategy

To make real progress, business needs to do more than what seems like “the right thing”.   Successful organizations are using a frameworks based, metrics driven, sustainable business process.

I am struck by how often I hear people say that businesses should just “do the right thing”.  As much as sustainability will surly lead to doing good things, using this turn of phrase is problematic and often trivializes the task of making the shift we need to make.  In fact, it’s in the way of progress – here are 3 reasons why.

1.     Most of the time the “right thing” isn’t obvious at all

I’m not making excuses for not trying, the impacts of doing the “wrong thing” are often painfully clear, but the truth is – when you start really digging into sustainability issues you find that it’s complicated.  Moreover we often don’t have complete information or data to know for sure what the best option is and what are all the possible unintended consequences of one approach over anther.  The book is full of unfortunate substitutions.  Relating it to something in everyday life – which is better paper or plastic?  The answer is usually “it depends”.  If choosing your grocery bag is hard, decisions on the scale of corporate supply chains need a lot more work than an intuitive “do the right thing” approach.

2.     Values are important but value judgments can get in the way

Sustainability efforts are well served when we give people permission to bring their values to work.  However, centering the discussion on only a values argument is potentially polarizing and derailing.  The dangerous underlying implication is that folks making different decisions are intentionally doing the wrong thing.

There is plenty of common ground on core issues of honoring people and respecting the environment to build on and little to be gained in a debate about whose definition of “the right thing” is more right. When we get the focus on driving innovation to solve problems we make more progress more quickly.  It is healthy to have individual and organizational non-negotiable values. But, to make progress we need broad collaborative efforts therefore we need to be careful not to unintentionally turn people away before they discover how much we all have in common.

3.     Don’t settle for compromise

Sometimes “do the right thing” is a crutch, supporting a “greener” but ultimately unsustainable solution.  To achieve fundamental benefits we need to unleash maximum creativity and innovation.   That usually requires the tension created when we don’t accept compromise but insist on delivering both positive environmental and social impacts as well as positive business results.  If we settle for a green solution because it’s “the right thing” we’re not pushing ourselves to reach for the higher bar.

Making progress on sustainability means adopting a business approach that is based on sound frameworks, supported by solid metrics and energized by people convinced that they can make a difference – and that’s a lot more powerful than just “doing the right thing”.

“Do the right thing” can sound as easy as skiing the fresh powder on the other side of the sign – but proceed with caution.

“Do the right thing” can sound as easy as skiing the fresh powder on the other side of the sign – but proceed with caution.