Credible urgency

You’ve done great sustainability work in your organization. You have completed some terrific projects. To drive real change — to “move the needle” — you now have to find ways to scale up beyond a few great projects.

The US Business Council for Sustainable Development (USBCSD) just wrapped up its Action 2020 session in New Haven. The session built on the World Business Council (WBCSD) and its work in Montreux. Much of the focus in New Haven was on exactly that challenge of scaling up: driving improvements of 10X instead of 10%.

For example, many companies have some great green products that succeed in the marketplace. Those products make up, say, 2% of all their current  sales. Action 2020 means going from that 2% to 20% or even 40%. If we have 20 companies in the room, Action 2020 means getting 200 more companies involved or 2000 – not just 2 more companies.

How do you bring about that level of change? Partly through great projects, great examples; you have to start somewhere, you have to figure it out, prove it, show it, do it. Absolutely. But to get scale, you have to do more. You certainly have to do more than you can do yourself. Personally, I’m pretty sure I can do 10% more by working harder or smarter. I’m very sure I can’t work 10 times harder or smarter.

That means you have to influence others rather than relying on yourself and your immediate team. You have to identify, enlist and engage partners, both inside and outside your own organization. To do that, you have to find ways of creating “credible urgency”:

  • If you’re urgent but not credible, you won’t get anyone to act. In fact, over time you won’t even get anyone to listen. So often we tone down the urgency to sound credible.
  • If you’re credible but not urgent, you won’t get anyone to act soon enough. Everything you say may sound like good ideas, but they will still be good ideas tomorrow or the next day or the next year.

So we have to be both credible and urgent. What does that credible urgency look like? The most important elements are about tone, voice and emphasis. They include:
– Teaching not preaching
– Selling not yelling
– Passion without panic
– Connecting the science to the business
– Connecting the values to the value

There are times to preach, of course, and maybe even times to yell. A Yale professor speaking at USBCSD suggested powerfully that at times, to break complacency and motivate your colleagues, you need to preach — not only to the choir, but also to the preachers!

For most of us, let’s just aim for credible urgency.

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]


  1. It sounds very interesting – how do you achieve it? Particularly the teaching and connecting value to values.

    1. Good question; and there are no easy answers, as I’m sure you know.

      My best cut at an overarching answer is: Focus on the outcome you want, not the role or credit you might get along the way. Getting others to change their minds is not easier if they have to admit they were wrong or you were right. Getting others to take ownership of a concept often requires you giving up some ownership of that same concept.

      More specifically, the “teaching” part requires caring more about helping others understand than getting them to agree. The “connecting value and values” part requires understanding where your audience is starting from in both value and values – and recognizing the validity of both.

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