There are some sustainability conundrums which just can’t be solved by one organisation acting alone – however smart its approach. That’s the thinking behind the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI), a business collaboration working internationally across the entire value chain of the shipping industry.
The collaborators want to test out solutions to barriers that inhibit the use of fuel-efficient technologies. At present, the incentives to take these technologies to scale are split, thanks to complex relationships between ship builders and owners, the companies which charter boats, and their clients. According to Jonathon Porritt, Founder-Director of Forum for the Future, this means “there are limitless opportunities to pass the buck and real disadvantages to first movers”. Synchronised movement is needed, and there’s a role for those businesses that recognise the opportunities and savings to coordinate it.
This is the aim of the SSI, a system-wide group convened by Forum for the Future, with input from the WWF. Its key members include Maersk Line, Unilever, Cargill, ABN AMRO and Lloyd’s Register. After an informal exploratory stage, the SSI is set to become a stand-alone body.
But even though the various organisations want to collaborate (they wouldn’t have been in the room if they didn’t), finding common ground has still been “massively difficult” according to Signe Bruun Jensen, Global Environment Advisor at Maersk Line. “We had banks, insurance brokers and shippers in the room with very different interests, so finding common priorities was hard”, she says.
Four work streams for priority action emerged from an initial list of about 20. “We had heated debates during several whole-day meetings”, Bruun Jensen adds, making the point that it was “so important that we all had professional respect and good working relationships, so that any disagreements could be worked through.”
Respect and good working relationships don’t just arise spontaneously though, she says. “You need a safe space and someone providing the facilitation to move the process along. You need a third party.”
In the case of the SSI, that third party role was provided by Forum for the Future. The Forum’s work on this and other collaborations has informed its Big Shift approach to system innovation. The ultimate goal is system change. The route there has to include armadas of diverse collaborators finding common ground and working out how to solve difficult challenges together.
There are other organisations and independent facilitators who can also bring their expertise, and in some cases neutrality, to the collaboration. I’ve been lucky enough to talk to some of them for ‘Working Collaboratively’, a new practical guide to the first steps in collaboration.
As well as the usefulness of process expertise, the other big key to success is to give it time. When you are shuttling between the collaboration and your own organisation, things can’t be rushed.
“You take two steps forward and then check back with your own organisation and go one step back. You need to plan in time for this”, says Bruun Jensen.
Her final word of advice? “[Be aware that] the early stages are heavily dependent on personalities. Keep an open mind. Be willing to jump in and see where it takes you!”
Penny Walker is an independent consultant and author of Working Collaboratively: A Practical Guide to Achieving More (Dō Sustainability, July 2013). Green Futures readers can use code GF15 for 15% off any book in the DōShorts Sustainable Business Collection
Photo credit: The China Navigation Company Pte Ltd