Fundamentally, there are two approaches to becoming a B Corp:
- managing it like a project, or
- navigating it as a whole company.
Managing it like a project is a mistake.
Given most companies are currently defaulting to the "managing it like a project" approach, I'm going to lay out some reasons why that's a problem. And whilst it does create problems for the movement at large, such as negative reputation contagion, I'm going to focus on why it's a problem for the companies themselves.
What is "managing-it-like-a-project"?
The project approach is characterised by the usual way internal projects are usually pursued:
- Leadership approves/decides it is a good idea (in this case, "it" means going B Corp)
- The task is allocated to a central staff function (in this case, probably the sustainability/impact team or HR)
- That small team takes on the project with other people only really involved if specific B Impact Assessment data or changes are needed from them, updating leadership until complete (in this case, completing the BIA to 80+ points)
- Task completes and leadership shares news of success (in this case, B Corp certification)
- Leadership and project team shifts focus more towards engagement.
This is how most of the current cohort of B Corps are going about it. It is not adopted cynically, or even particularly consciously, it is simply traditional management norms kicking in for "how things get done" within companies.
And it works. It doesn't prohibit a rising BIA score, implementation of ideas or certification. So, what's wrong with it?
It isn't that it is fundamentally wrong, but it is fundamentally not enough by itself.
Also, the problems it causes don't typically show up during certification, thereby going either unnoticed or presumed as "that doesn't apply to us". They surface at some point the other side of certification causing delay, disappointment and cost. Critically, it also misses new opportunities and overlooks the potential value of the journey.
Here are six key areas where a project managed approach falls short...
B Corp Enthusiasm ≠ B Corp Commitment
Mistaking enthusiasm for commitment during the project based approach is arguably the most tangible reason why a whole company approach is so important.
Consider for a moment that we all recognise charities as a good idea. We may even be particularly enthusiastic about certain causes. But a chasm exists between enthusiasm for a cause and resourcing it; the number of causes people commit to is vanishingly small compared to those they believe in.
And so it is with B Corp. Corporate, collective enthusiasm about what B Corp represents - certified or otherwise - does not necessarily equate to widespread internal commitment to its function and ideas.
A root reason for this is a misunderstanding about motivation. Enthusiasm is obviously important. But commitment - and the underlying motivation that supports it - is born from choice and contribution, not only something being a good idea. And a project based approach has very little of either of these compared to a whole company navigation.
This misunderstanding is why so much traditional employee engagement falls short. Traditional engagement mostly works from the premise that engagement activities happen after the fact, i.e. once a strategy/initiative has already been decided upon and made underway. In that scenario, the task then becomes to 'engage' employees with this predetermined 'good' idea. That isn't engagement, that's enrolment with a sales exercise attached to it.
The magic for real engagement happens before the fact, not after it, i.e. prior to a strategy/initiative already having been decided upon and made underway. In that scenario, the task then becomes to involve employees in the thinking and co-creation, not just its ongoing execution.
To become truly purpose-led, companies need to shift from "How do we enthuse people about an idea?" to "How do we all commit to an idea?" From doing things to or for employees to with them. Changing that question and then understanding it requires real partnership on ideas, has a big impact on how to think and what to do. And it is continuous: it requires thought at every step to do it well. So, yes, sometimes it requires more time upfront. But what do you think happens if you paint a room without preparing it properly?
It's not that engagement can't eventually happen the traditional way but the more you take a partnership approach, the cheaper, more effective, purposeful and authentic it is.
Lastly, don't mistake (your own) leadership enthusiasm for employee enthusiasm. Leaders know less about the inner working reality than employees: it is enthusiasm without all the facts. Secondly, they may gain different benefits, e.g. personal profile. Thirdly, employee enthusiasm for a leaders ideas shouldn't always be taken at face value: there's often more going on there than it appears.
B Corp Journey ≠ Quality Culture Journey
B Corp is a broad and thorough framework. But it is not focused on cultural issues. Does it cover workers? Yes. But all third party, mass designed frameworks have limitations on the culture front.
You can't comprehend and attend to my soul with a questionnaire: a company is no different.
There is also a world of difference between a community holding itself accountable to cultural expectations vs one colourfully articulating them in snazzy communications. Policies need beating hearts not corporate smarts.
Does this mean you can certify as a B Corp and have cultural problems? Absolutely. Yikes. Just ask Brewdog. But it would be a mistake to judge Brewdog and think "we don't have those issues" or "that couldn't happen to us". Culture problems don't have to be nearly that severe or public to be damaging: low grade concerns can cause significant distress and decline. In the words of Robert W Service: "It isn't the mountain ahead that wears you out; it's the grain of sand in your shoe."
So, B Corp alone cannot unearth all your cultural issues. But nor can it resolve them all. Culture has a lot to do with relationship and fellowship. Outsourcing all your culture concerns to a third party assessment hoping it will suffice is lazy leadership, at best. There is no third party replacement for standing alongside the pains and pleasures of your people.
All that said, the B Corp framework provides a strong starting point and copious ideas. At Shoremount, we liken it to your skeleton: a structure to anchor otherwise disconnected ideas around. But just as a human being needs the flesh and the soul wrapped around that skeleton to be a thriving person, so too does a business.
Why is all this made worse by the project based approach? Well, for example, it:
- Almost exclusively focuses on the BIA contents (the skeleton), thereby missing a golden opportunity to nurture dynamic synergy with the culture and purpose journey (the soul).
- Involves only limited people, thereby creating limited experiential benefit.
- Creates emotional risk. Internally announcing certification with minimal involvement beyond the project team can create frustration and disinterest.
- Creates reputation risk. Externally announcing certification without tuning into your culture can lead to considerable conflict if material, latent issues exist.
- Lacks decision making excellence because execs are rarely in harmony with the cultural reality on the ground. They are not best placed to decide alone whether additional cultural concerns are necessary.
- Breezes past a ready made moment to test underlying organisational assumptions.
- Feeds the very reason modern companies are sick in the first place: total focus on the how and the doing, cursory attention to the why and the being.
B Corp Certified ≠ Living System Worldview
There are two philosophical shifts occurring within contemporary organisations. The first is concerned with being a "better business", primarily understood as being more responsible and sustainable. The second is a deeper evolution in society's underlying worldview. During the modern era, humankind (particularly secular western contexts) have adopted a worldview that sees life as akin to a machine: rational, predictable, material, linear, process driven etc. But those environments increasingly see the world more akin to the natural world: unpredictable but rhythmic, complex, adaptive, fast changing.
The difference between these two worldviews has profound implications for "how things should get done" within organisations and, by inference, how B Corp is best pursued.
The machine worldview has a governance system that is top down and prioritises control over autonomy, efficiency over creativity and standardisation over localisation. This is where the project based approach - centralised and compartmental - was born.
The living system worldview has a governance system based upon collective commitment, evolutionary purpose and relationships over contracts. This is where a whole company approach - decentralised and holistic - is born.
The vast proportion of problems today's companies face - low innovation, trust, wellbeing, responsiveness, autonomy, belonging, flourishing etc - can be traced to the incompatibility of a machine worldview with the social and economic reality. Companies that take a project based approach reinforce the underlying assumptions they should be doing all they can to move away from.
B Corp Success ≠ Strategic Synergy
B Corp has to live within the strategic and cultural ecosystem it is birthed into. Any momentum created prior to certification can only be maintained if the surrounding environment is conducive to it. This needs consideration because there is no default synergy created between the B Corp process and company strategy or the wider journey towards being purpose-led without intentional thought and application.
A project based approach is almost entirely focused on the completion of the B Impact Assessment. It rushes into the "how do get certified dialogue" before pausing to consider the why and what of a movement like B Corp. Consequently, it tends to overlook the broader strategic questions that concern the spirit of B Corp and the idea it represents: the philosophical casing that protects and fuels it over time. Such as: what does it really mean to be a purpose-led business? What additional needs and expectations will this likely create? How will hopes differ between different stakeholder groups? What crossroads are we at? Why and how have I been contributing to issues we now need to resolve? Without collective exploration no scaffolding is built to maintain a B Corp way, weakening its potential and chances for success.
Any leader that decides to take their company B Corp has considered a range of questions before they decide whether or not it's a good idea, however briefly. The flow chart below outlines the mental journey a decision making process, however brief. But that decision making process needs to be out in the open, not just in one or two people's heads. And it needs to be widespread. Deciding on going B Corp on everyone else's behalf effectively means no one else has been afforded the time to consider what might change for them and why. That considered time deepens the strategic commitment and improves people's responses to change.
B Corp Assessment ≠ Complete Review
The B Impact Assessment is very thorough and does a great job of customising itself to a company's context, altering the content to size, industry, sector, geography etc. It goes further still by opening sections depending upon how you answer individual questions. It is the best in class, third party assessment designed for mass application.
However, it cannot find its way into every nook and cranny of your organisation's make up. Any third party assessment will always miss hyper-relevant issues: the characteristics that make a business the unique operation it is, such as local geography, niche, history. In the BIA's case, for example, there is nothing in the BIA on Cornwall for Cornish businesses, family for family businesses, sense of place for property companies, heritage for long term brands etc.
But nor should it be expected to have them. The ultimate responsibility for ensuring a business becomes better for society and the environment lies with itself, not a third party assessment. Frameworks like the BIA can do the best they can - and keep updating to do so - but they are offered in an attempt to help with that thinking, not replace all of that thinking.
The issue with a project based approach is that its total focus on the BIA content means exploring and reviewing these unique characteristics goes overlooked. This situation is compounded by those issues likely being the ones most in need of addressing seeing again.
B Corp Containment ≠ Collaborative Mindset
A common reason leadership opts for the project based approach is because it's contained. It means the minimum number of people have been made aware of the task: those running it, those who need to provide data and a few other people here and there.
This containment strategy is usually the result of fear of failure of fear or fear what will people will do/expect when they find out about the intention to go B Corp.
Building a certification strategy around these fears raises all manner of questions. And if you're not careful, employees can smell them a mile off.
In some cases it questions the authenticity of the intention. Leaders only willing to talk about B Corp if they are certified suggests too much focus on the brand and its reputation benefits.
In some cases it questions the willingness of leadership to be accountable. Half the point of the B Corp journey is its accountability commitments; public, transparent information is part of that. Starting the journey not wanting this doesn't infer good things.
In some cases it questions whether leaders have actually thought it through properly. The whole point of B Corp is a framework to help companies change; it was not simply designed as an exam to filter out "special companies". Saying "we are on a journey and using the B Corp framework to help us get there" is perhaps the most B Corpy thing you can do.
In some cases it can appear leaders are unwilling to help those around them change. B Corp is absolutely about cooperation. Being unwilling to share anything but highly positive news about yourself can hamper the willingness of other companies to ask you for help. It also creates distrust. No one believes you're perfect, least of all the relationships closest to you, so why pretend to be. We all prefer to be vulnerable with people are willing to be vulnerable and humble with us. And so it is with companies.
It is worth noting that this "contained until certified" thinking is more systemically prevalent amongst the recent cohorts of B Corp companies than it was previously. The early B Corps were less like this because the B Corp brand didn't carry the same weight. The decision making was dominated more by the central purpose, collective voice and collaboration.
A Metaphor to cover it all...
If the B Impact Assessment is not enough by itself, what is the benefit of it? A metaphor we like to use is that of the human body. B Corp is to purposeful business what your skeleton is to you: a framework that provides structure, stability and an anchor point for all your ideas and activities can hang off. But just as you need flesh and soul to thrive, so too must a company pursue more than a third party assessment to offer a life giving, human working experience.