Managing sustainability from a product perspective

This week I participated in a workshop on sustainability and circular economy. This is a topic I care about and discussing it in a facilitated workshop-setting was both interesting and fun. However this is a setting where the risk of “Good ideas” is very high.

I believe many people recognize the situation. You work around a theme that many are passionate about. The workshop facilitates innovative ideas and at the end of the day you have some 3-5 interesting ideas that everyone is excited about. The issue is what happens next? In a company with weak or no product process, what happens next will likely depend on who was in the workshop. If it was a senior person with some sway, he might come back from the event, inspired and with a clear idea on how to move the needle. This is understandable but not how I believe you actually make in impact in product (and not how it was in my case). 

So how do we get Sustainability into our products. The tricky thing about sustainability is that users usually don’t respond very well to it. They say they want it when asked, but their behaviour usually shows that sustainability is not a strong enough reason to persuade them to take a particular action (e.g. conversion rates to climate compensation products are usually very low). 

What is positive about this is that we’re already used to dealing with similar situations. When the company wants to achieve something (usually financial) we call this a desired business outcome. Users usually couldn’t care less about our desired business outcomes but we still find ways to do it (see me earlier post). I believe sustainability should be treated as any other business outcome. 

The question then becomes, how does sustainability stack up against our other desired business outcomes such as increasing revenues for this specific quarter? I believe this is the real problem that a company needs to solve if they want their product teams to innovate around sustainability. If we want product teams to innovate around sustainability then: define a metric, and set it as a priority. If you have a strong product process this should be enough! What you should not do is to measure teams on financial business outcomes and then throw in good ideas on top, that way usually neither gets done.