Shake Your Stakeholder: How Leading Firms Co-Create Sustainability Solutions

From left to right: co-author Mel Edwards, co-author Ed Freeman, Ellen Auster, and author Adam Sulkowski.
From left to right: co-author Mel Edwards, co-author Ed Freeman, Ellen Auster, and author Adam Sulkowski.

A new research paper describes the means by which some companies are proactively addressing environmental and social issues. It helps make sense of how companies co-create market conditions that reward sustainability innovations.

One of the leading scholars of stakeholder theory, Ed Freeman, is a co-author of this paper, because he agreed that this form of engaging stakeholders is underappreciated.

“Shaking” stakeholders is used to describe this overlooked practice of bringing people out of complacency, plus aligning networks to advance actions to co-create solutions. In other words, it is analogous to orchestrating cooperation, creating harmony out of disparate interests. Building on our musical metaphor, when a tune truly resonates, it shakes both its creators and listeners, shaking them into being participants in co-creating an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Examples of businesses and their leaders “shaking it” include:

- Interface and, to borrow John Elkington’s answer to a recent interview question about companies achieving ambitious sustainability goals: “Unilever, Tesla, Solar City, Novo Nordisk, Covestro, and car companies Ford, Nissan and Volvo, to some extent.”

- Business coordinating and driving actionable milestones to advance the goals of the Paris Agreement.

- Entrepreneurs driving revolution in the energy sector.

By motivating and including customers, employees, suppliers, and others into their ideation of strategy, companies can create conditions that support innovations which improve social and environmental conditions.

The key observations of our paper are consistent with calls for a new leadership paradigm in MIT’s Sloan Management Review that brings about systemic change through orchestrating mutual cooperation and managing widespread risks.

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