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Enough with the Semantics! Let's Get Down to Business

I have a bit of a bone to pick. Over the past couple of years, numerous well-intended articles have attempted to crystallize a moniker and definition for the work that we do. Universal language might help guide our efforts, but I don’t think we’re far enough down that road to worry about arriving at a consensus.

It’s time for the CSR, CSV, ESG and other related communities to stop quarreling over the way in which we define our aims, and keep our attention on the real priority — the work itself. And since all businesses need to get headed down this path, we’ll benefit from the unique diversity of ideas and experience (something Nilofer Merchant calls “onlyness”) that each of us brings to the table.

There are many acronyms that all point generally to the same thing. Essentially, we want to conduct business in a way that considers the various needs and concerns of stakeholders and carves out a space that, in doing so, maximizes the returns to all. Beyond that, individual and organizational differences may add healthy diversity of styles and opinions, allowing for continued dialogue and growth.

Crafting solutions that leave all stakeholders better off is a lofty aim, but it’s an ideal we must strive for. That’s where our focus must lie.

Michaelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” We know our masterpiece awaits, but it seems rash to describe a shared work of art before the excess stone has been chipped away. As we learn through experimentation our terms will emerge.

It’s time to stop talking about how we're going to talk about it. It’s time to get going. It's time to make a difference.

How do we do that?

We table the talking.

We shift our focus to listening and learning.

We craft experiments.

We make incremental changes. We take wild leaps.

We connect. We share.

We perspire. We inspire.

We fail — sometimes miserably. We get back up — often with help, always with open eyes.

We try again. We try something new. We try for the sake of trying.

We feel lost. We step back. We step away. We wander.

We return anew. We bring fresh eyes. We see things differently. We take a new tack. We gain ground.

We grow. We help others do the same.

We gain a little ground. We learn some more. We adjust our approach. We find a solution. We look for the finish line and go like mad.

We make it!

We collapse in a heap, exhausted but satisfied.

We know we've made something better.

We thank. We praise. We pause and reflect. We share what we’ve learned.

We pick another hill. We start another journey.

We don't dally. (We can't!)

We get going. (We must!)

We work to right the ship to protect those who can't.

We have so much to do!

We know that to make the progress we all dream of we’ve got to work together. This is not up for discussion. It is undeniable, too, that we need a shared language to help facilitate collaboration along the way. With all due respect to the extensive efforts of many in the industry, I think we’ve got enough verbiage to fuel us for now. Moreover, any more time spent arguing semantics is time not spent doing the work. After all, our aim is efficiency, isn’t it?

We’re facing questions about the sustainability of Sustainability (I know …), so we’ll have to drive meaningful, sustained progress to fend off such attacks. We’ll certainly have our hands full with that, but we’re fortunate in that the thing which will allow us to carry on is simply doing our work well. I say we roll up our sleeves now and that we’ll coalesce on the right terms along the way.

Paulo Friere said that, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” I believe we’ll gain the knowledge in the doing and that we’ll raise it to the level of wisdom as we reflect and discuss what we’ve learned.

We could go back to debating what to call the work, or we could get down to doing it.

For me, the choice is clear. I say call it whatever you like, as long as we’re focused on doing the work, the rest will take care of itself.

I hope we can agree on that.


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