How 17 goals have transformed our business (and can help yours too)
Whether it's stated or not, every company has a sense of purpose. For some it’s solely about making money. For others it’s about much more. Not long ago, ThinkPlace made the decision to sign up to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. More importantly, we decided to place them at the core of our work.
And when we did, something amazing happened.
This list of goals has transformed the way we do business. The projects we take on. The partners we work with. The impact we seek.
Can it do the same for your company or organisation? We sat down with ThinkPlace founder John Body to find out more.
Q: ThinkPlace has signed up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. What are they, then?
JB: The SDGs had their origin in the Millennium Development Goals. These 10 goals, adopted for the turn of the millennium, were aimed at addressing core needs such as poverty, food, health and education in developing countries.
The Sustainable Development Goals are much broader. There are 17 goals and they apply equally to the developing and the developed world. There are 194 signatory countries. The goals cover the world’s biggest challenges including social, economic and environmental needs. Associated with each goal are strategies and indicators for success.
The goals are ambitious and broad. Some may say overly so. But the Millennium Development Goals galvanised effort and, whilst not fully achieved, resulted in much more progress than had they not existed. In my work across many countries I am hearing frequent reference to the goals and am constantly seeing projects directed towards them.
Q: Why have we done this? Why is it important to us?
JB: The ThinkPlace strategic direction has evolved since the company was launched in 2005. As we worked on more and more projects we began to reflect on why some were rewarding and some were not.
We discovered that those projects that had personal meaning and combined impact were much more satisfying than those without. We could not get excited about a project where we did not agree with the outcomes. This was particularly evident when working with organisations to increase consumption of products or services that people did not need, or worse still, that were bad for them.
This led us to redefine our identity. We wanted not just to be a strategic design consultancy, but one that focuses our efforts on public, shared or collective value. Public value is generally associated with the public sector. Shared value is generally associated with private sector initiatives that are commercially successful and also good for the wider community. Collective value is generally associated with value created by the community for the community.
These terms served us well for a few years but we found they were not fully effective in sharing across the team the types of projects we would work on and the types of projects we would not work on.
Q: As a company, what does it mean in practical terms to sign up to these goals? What do we have to do?
JB: The Goals have given much greater clarity about what is public, shared or collective value. Because they are agreed across 194 nations they are more likely to reflect overall community expectation regardless of the countries we are working in.
We have also signed up to the UN Global Compact which records and enshrines a commitment by a company to work towards the goals. It is a way to shift the achievement of the goals from being a solely public sector responsibility to a multi-sectoral one. In our case, signing up for the goals influences the types of projects we work on. It also influences the way we run our company. This includes reducing environmental impact while increasing social inclusion in the workplace.
Q: Has adopting these goals meant that any changes needed to be made in how we work or the type of work we take on?
JB: Prior to signing up for the goals we experienced some tension about whether all our projects were contributing to a 'public value' outcome. We had talked about developing a screening process for all new projects to determine their fit with our mission. This would have added an extra step of process and bureaucracy to our work.
We have found that since signing up for the goals this ambiguity has reduced. Not only that, we have observed that our whole portfolio of work has shifted towards higher impact work because the whole team now acts to seek out such projects and screen out misaligned projects. The changes that we have made have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. And in general all the individuals in the company are now much more aligned with the vision.