How your grandmother can help you write better sustainability reports

Today I’m feeling sympathetic towards politicians. Not all of them, you understand – just the particular few involved in the ‘mid-term review’ of the coalition UK Government’s progress.

In case you’re not up to speed, the story so far runs something like this:

The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition releases a mid-term review of its progress since it took power in 2010. The key message: although things are tough for the UK right now, in general their government is doing pretty well.

Alongside the review, it plans the low-key release of an extra document it hopes no-one will notice – an “unvarnished” audit of the coalition’s original pledges. They aren’t counting on a confidential briefing document describing the audit’s “problematic areas” being published in the Daily Telegraph.

Long story short: the audit gets lots of attention, and it becomes apparent it’s not as “unvarnished” as the Prime Minister claims. The opposition Labour party points out that key debt target will not be achieved on time, and the Institute of Government accuses the Government of telling a half-truth about tuition fees.

The government’s response? Their audit looked only at the coalition agreement of May 2010, and the pledges being criticised were not in this document. In other words, it doesn’t matter that the audit didn’t tell the full story, because part of it was out of scope.

Ouch.

I’m not here to argue who is right and who is wrong. The Government is technically correct to say that the pledges were made at different times, though I can’t help but feel that the date and time of a promise shouldn’t matter much when your stakeholders come to hold you to account.

No, I’m here to sympathise. The report’s authors faced a dilemma I’ve faced more than once. When you’re writing a sustainability report – or, indeed, any kind of progress report – what do you do when progress hasn’t been made?

Do you tell the whole truth, admit to a failure (even a temporary one) and risk embarrassment?

Or do you tell a half-truth and try to make yourself look good?

After all, it might not be your fault that you didn’t make progress. You might have worked really hard all year, only for someone else to scupper the project at the last minute. The target might have been formulated badly by a predecessor who didn’t think it through properly. Or something might have happened during the year – a merger, say – that meant the target was no longer valid.

Whatever the explanation, there only one rational response to this dilemma: tell the truth.

Let’s look at why…

1. You’ll be found out. You may not find yourself in a national newspaper, but in the era of the internet and amateur fact-checkers, someone will spot your lie of omission. You’ll look like a weasel for trying to ‘spin’ your results – and if there’s a faster way to lose the trust of your stakeholders, I’ve yet to hear it.

2. You’ll be forced to defend yourself. Defence of your lie won’t sound convincing, and it’s unlikely to placate your critics. At this point, you won’t look like a weasel so much as King Of All The Weasels, and your stakeholders will treat you accordingly.

3. You’ll sabotage all your hard work. Not only is it wrong to lie – no, it really is – it’s also counterproductive. Telling a half-truth undermines the value of your other achievements, and deprives you of the satisfaction of reaching your target for real. If you’re striving for change in a corporate environment, that sort of satisfaction is important to hold on to.

When I’m explaining a tricky concept, I often find it useful to ask myself, “how would I explain this to my grandmother?” In this case, it’s a simple modification to ask, “could I justify this to my grandmother?”

If the answer’s no, don’t do it.

Image: Grandmother by Monica Antonelli is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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