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Corporate sustainability and the value of momentum

(Henry, bringing momentum back, I hope)

As a football fan, I’m understanding the importance of momentum more than ever this season.

My team is Arsenal. And we have lost momentum. Having had the worst start to the season in living memory, which included a gargantuan thrashing by a traditional rival, the team turned it around.

For ten games or more they went from hapless losers to the form team of the Premiership. Now we’ve stuttered once again, and many fans are not sure why. We’ve lost momentum.

Our manager, the most values-driven and ethical in the business, talks often about spirit. Team spirit drives momentum. He is convinced and it’s not hard to see why.

But even the The Prof, as he is sometimes known, is baffled by our current inexplicable loss of form. Key players are just going missing, and no-one knows why.

Momentum matters, more than ever. And we easily under value it in business.

Whenever I’ve worked in or with successful teams, spirit and momentum have been almost tangible. Yet we never talked much about it. It just happened.

One particularly enlightened angel investor in a company I used to run, tried to sell me on the value of both, but I would usually say I was too busy to listen. More fool me.

Momentum is particularly important for sustainability managers. Gaining momentum behind a business initiative is a tough ask. Sustaining it through distraction, tough times and mocking commentators is even harder.

Ethical business is a more complex area than most managers have to cope with. Everyone has to have a say, and most opinions matter,

So once a company gets momentum and sustains it for even a few years, it quickly becomes the stuff of legend, or what passes for that in this odd and evolving field.

GE’s Ecomagination. Marks & Spencer’s Plan A, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan and Toyota’s Prius are all well known examples, in varying stages, of corporate momentum in action.

If you don’t get momentum, you can’t drive change, particularly sustainable change. Look at all those corporate initiatives on the subject that haven’t really gone anywhere. There are thousands of them.

What defines momentum? In sport it’s that team spirit feeling, as Arsenal’s manager will tell you. In business it’s all the management processes and leadership skills we all talk about to the point of cliche. With spirit on top. Successful companies usually have strong beliefs.

But perhaps momentum, as a descriptive term, is a way of thinking about sustaining ethical progress that is neglected.

To come back to football for a moment. The unsung hero of any team is the midfielder who keeps the game moving forwards with short, accurate passes. He is sometimes referred to as being like a metronome.

Good sustainability managers are like that. They often don’t shoot for goal, but pass forwards, or sideways as needed. They maintain momentum. The best companies are masters of this. Apple, in terms of successful products, is probably the leading example. BMW or Volkswagen would be another.

There are no easy answers to the challenge of creating this feeling, as any manager or CEO will tell you, although most know it when they see it.

As compelling business language, ‘building momentum’ sounds a lot better to me than ’embedding’. (Could there be a duller term?) But perhaps it would sound too much like PR speak in a CR report.

That’s not really my point. As a spoken term, it’s a word that can, and should, resonate across your company management. It’s a key question for the board or business unit head meetings: “How do we build and maintain, sustainable momentum?”

It has the advantage of sounding positive, like something we should all seek to maintain and grow.

It’s worth putting on the agenda.