What are the three main “last mile” challenges for shared value projects and what advice is there for overcoming them?
At face value, a project is a project, so what makes a shared value project any different or special? I’ve found they do have their own unique challenges, which relate to idea development, engagement flash points and measurement infrastructure.
In case your not familiar with shared value, it is created when a company seeks to address a social issue and derive a business benefit at the same time. For example, the Mexican building products company, Cemex, created higher quality, more affordable housing products for a new customer segment: low-income families.
Shared value projects require a high degree of innovation capability and demand that organisations across multi-sectors work together in different ways.
Challenge 1: Idea Development
Creating shared value is not your standard innovation task. Companies must deal with financial and social objectives, instead of just financial ones.
Therefore they must be fluent in the nature of social issues, their complexities and their causes. Business people – of which I am a former one and speak from experience – are analytical by nature and tend to make sweeping assumptions about the causes of social problems and, without pausing for breath, then go on to detail the solution.
Okay, maybe I’m being a bit harsh here, but I’ve seen it happen often enough to know it is fundamentally true.
To overcome this challenge, businesses must be willing to listen, explore, unpack problems and take on new perspectives. They also need the right processes and tools that cater specifically for these dual objectives.
Challenge 2: Engagement Flash Points
In most shared value projects there will be one or more social sector partners because both profit and purpose don’t traditionally sit well within a for-profit business. Dealing with the needs of vulnerable people, for example, requires independent, trustworthy and knowledgable partners to make sure social outcomes are realised.
Companies have very different motives, language and cultures compared to government, NGO and community organisations. I call the point at which they interface and operationalise the way they work together as the ‘engagement flash point’.
No matter how good a strategy, project or plan looks on paper, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on if the people across mulitple sectors and organisations are unable to work efficiently and effectively with each other. They all have their own idea of timeframes, best practice and expectations about service standards.
Being able to navigate these engagement flash points is a skill that will make or break a project, assuming that the differences are not insurmountable in the first place. Apart from navigating these engagement points, facilitators and project coordinators need to act like the clutch between two gears: finding the common speed that all parties can work at and still move forward.
Challenge 3: Measurement Infrastructure
Ask anyone in the shared value field what their biggest problem is and it’s odds-on they’ll say: measurement. Why? Because too often it’s thought about later in the piece instead of built in from the start.
In fact, focusing on desired, measurable outcomes at the idea development stage will potentially save a lot of wasted time and energy down the track. Remember, it’s a multi-dimensional task, you’re dealing with drivers of financial performance as well as social inputs, outputs and outcomes. And that’s all before the task of collecting the data.
For reasons of practicality, don’t overthink measurement. It can be tempting to try and nail the outcomes by way of highly complex measurement processes, when in fact the parties involved may be comfortable with a basic set of outputs or indicators that tell them whether they’re on track or not. Sometimes the marginal gain is not worth the extra cost.
You should view the testing and prototyping stages in your projects as ideal opportunities to work out exactly what data you could and should be collecting. I guarantee what you end up doing will be different from what you expected as deeper insights about the social problems at play and solution designs are revealed.
Don’t Worry. Be Happy.
I’ve painted a picture here of difficult challenges that may stress you out. I don’t back away from that, however put it in the context of what’s being accomplished: there’s no gain without a deal of pain.
If a business is using a shared value lens to innovate – and I’d argue that it’s very risky not to do so – then its goal is to create advantage that puts it well ahead of its competitors, and that won’t happen if the process is dead easy. It’s got to be hard in order for the project to generate significant value, and these last mile challenges are best prepared for in advance.
If you get it right, you’ll not only feel good about the impact you’re making, you’ll be able to celebrate the fact that you’re doing it on work time!
Phil Preston is a shared value expert based in Sydney, Australia who provides strategy, facilitation and speaking services to a range of public, private and non-profit sector clients. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org