June 25, 2024

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How Companies Can Get Started With Radical Collaboration

5 min read

Jeroen, founder of the Radical Collaboration Institute, leads the Forbes Councils Sustainability group.

Life is busy. Sometimes it’s all we can do to get through a “normal” day. It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race and lose sight of what is important to us.

When we do step back from all that “busy-ness” and think about what really matters, we often want to make a difference, something that will make us and our children proud. But how do you choose where to make a difference when there are so many problems that need fixing?

Company leaders can make a difference when it comes to the environment.

There are two present dangers that are driving the planet toward environmental catastrophe: global warming and biodiversity loss. Global warming is causing rapid environmental changes that will reduce food and water supplies and make much of the planet unlivable—triggering social dislocations and resource conflicts.

Even without the amplifying effect of global warming, biodiversity loss caused by human activity has been occurring at a rate that also threatens our survival. Beyond the extinction of individual species, whole ecosystems have collapsed or are close to collapse, and natural habitats are shrinking or disappearing—and with them, the capacity of nature to provide the “services” we need to survive.

So, if you want to make a difference, I believe these are the problems we need to work on.

We can avert this crisis if we accelerate the rate of change.

Progress is being made, but not quickly enough. We continue to miss our targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and limiting global warming to the “safe” threshold of 1.5 C by 2030 now seems unlikely. We don’t need to invent new solutions to hit our targets; we just need to apply the ones we have, as detailed in atmospheric chemist Dave Lowe’s book, The Alarmist: Fifty Years Measuring Climate Change.

There is still time to avert catastrophe if we accelerate our rate of progress. I’ve noticed the problem is that we are trapped between two conventional problem-solving approaches that are not working fast enough and are not likely to be sufficient.

On the one hand, we are trying to drive wide-scale systemic change through top-down initiatives that are slow and largely ineffective. Any action they generate tends to be mired in bureaucracy that not only slows progress but also turns them into “tick the box” compliance exercises that produce little real change.

On the other hand, individual organizations are resorting to isolated point solutions. This can get results, but is inefficient and often just moves the problem elsewhere. For example, an expedient way for an organization to reduce its GHG emissions is to outsource its GHG generating activities to other organizations.

To accelerate progress, we can keep trying to push these two existing approaches harder, but the evidence suggests it will still be too little, too late.

We need a third way as well.

Corporations can tap into their power by changing the way they behave.

There is one key force for change that I think we are yet to really tap in our fight to save the planet. That is the power of corporations. We must change the way that organizations behave, particularly the behavior of large commercial corporations. They are not only responsible for much of the problem, but they are also best placed to solve them. They can act faster, have more resources and more reach than many governments or other organizations.

However, corporations that want to address their environmental impact often risk “first-mover disadvantage.” In a competitive environment, a corporation that is the first to develop or deploy new solutions to reduce its environmental impact must invest more and incur higher initial operating costs than those who simply wait until they can copy them or buy them “off the shelf.”

Addressing global warming and biodiversity loss therefore requires more than uncoordinated action by individual organizations. It requires collaboration between organizations, between suppliers and buyers, between competitors, and even between organizations from different industries.

However, existing mechanisms for collaboration between organizations are often based on commercial arrangements that have financial rather than environmental objectives, so collaboration has been limited to environmental solutions where there is money to be made.

We need a new paradigm—we need radical collaboration.

I believe collaboration among corporations is critical to averting environmental catastrophe. I also believe there is sufficient will among organizations and among individuals within them to get traction now, but what is lacking is the right collaboration mechanism.

We need a new paradigm for how organizations work together, one in which they unite around a joint commitment to achieving environmental outcomes and where commercial considerations are a constraint, not the objective. I call this new paradigm “radical collaboration.” Radical because it is fundamentally different from existing forms of organizational collaboration and radical because it aims to achieve extraordinary results.

Radical collaboration involves three key steps:

1. Identify suitable collaborators and opportunities.

2. Secure a shared commitment to a common (nonfinancial) goal. For example, a nonfinancial objective is the realm of nature targets. The Science Based Target Network (SBTN) offers a universally recognized framework for setting goals related to nature, such as freshwater quality and quantity. However, achieving these goals is practically unattainable for a single company, given the nature of water that traverses numerous land boundaries.

3. Establish a radical collaboration hub to sustain the collaboration. The hub’s role includes setting up mechanisms to measure the achievement of the goal, tracking progress, facilitating a structured yet creative collaborative problem-solving process, developing solutions, and maintaining transparency and governance around progress and commitment fulfilment.

I urge business leaders to recognize the pivotal role corporations can play in driving meaningful change. By fostering collaboration beyond traditional boundaries and committing to shared nonfinancial goals, organizations have the potential to accelerate progress toward environmental sustainability. In a world on the brink of environmental catastrophe, radical collaboration offers a path forward, emphasizing collective action and a commitment to a sustainable future for both businesses and the planet.


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