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Overcome Sustainability Challenges By Forging Alliances: An Interview with Russ Gaskin of CoCreative

CoCreative partner Russ Gaskin was interviewed by Christopher Skroupa of Skytop Strategies on how companies can more effectively collaborate with stakeholders to solve tough sustainability challenges.

Russ Gaskin is Managing Director of CoCreative, a U.S. consultancy that designs and facilitates multi stakeholder “innovation networks” to develop new solutions to complex sustainability and supply chain challenges. The CoCreative team currently facilitates ten major networks working on challenges from eliminating exposures to toxic chemicals in electronics plants, growing the supply of non-GMO food and feed, and improving community health outcomes in several major U.S. cities. Prior to launching CoCreative, Russ served as the chief business officer of Green America, a pioneer in leveraging economic strategies to advance social equity and environmental sustainability; served as managing director of US SIF, the trade association for impact investing firms; and founded the Green Business Network, the first network of triple-bottom line businesses in the U.S.

Christopher Skroupa: How is the landscape of stakeholder engagement shifting for companies today?

Russ Gaskin: We’re seeing three primary forces that are driving companies to engage in deeper forms of collaboration with their external stakeholders: the increasing transparency and analysis of companies’ impacts, the emerging risk of supply chain disruptions, and the growing recognition that in order to solve the most complex challenges, many diverse approaches and solutions are required because there’s no silver bullet.

One result of these forces is the increased willingness to collaborate more openly with competitors. In the past, collaboration among competitors was strictly regimented and orchestrated, and attorneys scrutinized any potential engagement. Now, companies realize that in order to find solutions to their biggest challenges, they need to engage dynamically with a complete set of stakeholders—including their competitors—and leverage the perspectives, resources, and commitments of everyone.

The real constraint to effective engagement, however, is the design of the actual engagement process itself; this mechanism needs to be redesigned, and more leaders are realizing this. They’ve begun to dip their toes in the water, implementing strategies for in-depth collaboration across the whole system, and co-creating agendas that go far beyond their own companies’ direct interests. They’ve found that it’s not as risky as they thought, it pays real dividends, and it’s actually a terrific driver of innovation. Some of these companies have also found that collaborating with external stakeholders made their own leaders better at working across the internal enterprise too. As a result, they’re investing in collaboration capability. They are more ready, and more equipped to do this kind of collaboration; they need partners who are ready and able to work in the same way.

Skroupa: With these new relationships developing to solve sustainability challenges, what are the implications involved with these alliances that are being forged?

Gaskin: While effective stakeholder collaboration requires real company resources, it can actually be more efficient and strategic for companies to collaborate than work on their own. Remodeling a supply chain to be more equitable and sustainable is complex, and suppliers aren’t always on board with either the goals or the means. When companies with a shared interest join together, they can not only drive greater interest and engagement among suppliers, but they can co-develop net-new solutions together and drive greater efficiency overall.

It’s also interesting to see how the “appetites” of people in our networks tend to grow over time. They tend to start out with smaller agendas and, one or two years in, they’re ready to transform their industries. For example, in one network we’re supporting at the Green America Center for Sustainability Solutions, a number of brand owners and their stakeholders came together with a common goal to sustain demand for non-genetically modified (GMO) food and feed supplies. Two years in, these stakeholders are now working on new “regenerative” agricultural production systems that are not just non-GMO but have improved climate, water quality and soil health outcomes; and deliver a better deal to farmers. When that network first formed, they would never have embraced outcomes like those.

We’re also seeing more willingness for firms to work in the pre-competitive space and transition supply chains together, all at once. This not only helps to solve for scale, but it also increases efficiency such as full utilization of grains, meat, and dairy components, which brings down overall cost. For example, if Ben and Jerry’s primarily needs cream, and Chobani primarily uses the other milk components, they can work together to utilize the whole profile and maximize efficiencies.

Collaboration allows companies to overcome other sticky challenges in supply chain transitions by combining their collective scale and influence. In our Clean Electronics network at the Center, brand owners and other stakeholders are working on strategies to reduce workers’ exposures to toxic chemicals, particularly solvents and bonding agents. That’s important because even a company the size of Apple doesn’t represent a majority of a given supplier’s business. By joining together with other brand owners, they dramatically increase their collective influence on suppliers’ policies and practices.

Skroupa: What kinds of solutions emerge from these collaborations?

Gaskin: We get a whole range of solutions: policy changes, communication and education campaigns, new technologies, targeted investments, new cost models, research studies, and more. Companies are evaluating the full gamut of solutions, they are getting creative with a whole palette of interventions in order to get the sustainability outcomes they are looking for. In the end, they realize that they need a whole set of solutions because—to reiterate—there’s no silver bullet for complex challenges like this.

Skroupa: What are the key mindsets and skills that company leaders need to develop in order to collaborate effectively?

Gaskin: We seek to start networks with participants who have proven collaboration abilities. Many collaboration approaches begin with the assumption that we need the most powerful leaders in the room to move an industry. What they end up getting, however, is a bunch of people who are used to leading, but not good at collaborating.

We also search for participants who are experts in their part of the value chain, but because the groups are very diverse, we also get “beginner’s mind.”  That is, no single person has expertise across the whole complex system, and as a result of this there’s a multitude of fresh perspectives and checking of basic assumptions. That combination of expertise and beginner’s mind is very helpful, as we do our analysis, people are free to ask basic questions that challenge assumptions. As we design solutions, it helps to have the whole system in the room to ensure that we create solutions that will work for any key stakeholder.

We also want participants who are highly regarded by their peers, whether those are civil society, corporate, or public sector peers. When we include people with high integrity and track records of success, whom others look to for fresh thinking and good ideas, it influences other companies and stakeholders who aren’t directly participating in the collaboration itself.  So we don’t look for the most powerful people, like CEOs for our networks; we look for people who are influential with key groups whom we want to support.

In regard to mindset we look for both a strong bias toward action and a commitment to deep learning. Some stakeholders love to analyze things to death and others like to rush to action. Our ideal participant is interested in both deep learning and in getting things done and don’t see those two things as being in conflict.

Skroupa: You use the term polarity, do these mindsets sometimes go against each other?

Gaskin: Tensions emerge in any collaboration, no matter how well intentioned the participants are. It’s a question of stitching together a common goal that’s big and specific enough to overcome the differences that everyone can buy into. That goes a long way towards overcoming differences.  We also reframe tensions as positive assets, rather than just differences, conflict or resistance.  For example, some participants prefer action and other prefer analysis, some prefer to focus on quick wins and others want long-term systemic change, some focus on the work and others focus on building strong relationships.  When you think about it, we want all these things, so we always frame these tensions as positive tensions that will help us work more effectively together.

Skroupa: What are other factors that make collaboration effective?

Gaskin: It’s really important to have a goal that’s audacious, meaningful, and specific. Collaboration takes time and money and it’s not easy, especially when you’re bringing together stakeholders from across a global supply chain. If you’re going to use this approach, the goal has to big enough to rationalize all that infrastructure and investment.

Having goals that are specific also helps people work at scale and stay focused on evoking change. If, for example, you just set out to make electronics production safer for workers, there are a million things that might contribute to that outcome. We only want to work on the best opportunities that will make the biggest difference. So if they won’t move us toward our goal in a big way, why do them?

It’s also important that everyone shares two views on the problem; at the 30,000 foot view, they need to see the whole system along with the looming barriers and potential opportunities at that level. But they also need a view from the ground—a deep and empathetic view of the real lived experiences of people in the system we’re trying to change, whether those people are factory workers, farmers, or customers. Collaborations often embrace that first view, what we call the “content expert” view, to the neglect of the “context expert” view.  But at the end of the day, if we don’t improve the real experience of people on the ground in our supply chains, we have not solved the problem at hand, so it’s very important to be grounded in that human experience when doing this work.

Originally published on on June 23, 2016


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