Mistakes give you 2020 Vision

7 January 2020

I don’t believe in ‘bad mistakes’ … unless it is caused by ones we did not learn from in the past. This is because mistakes give you the potential for #2020Vision in hindsight.

What I mean by this is that ‘mistakes’ are an important part of learning; and learning is fundamental in making sure we know how to do better for ourselves, our families, the organisations we work for, and the societies we serve. This is why I don’t like to sit in flagellation, either of self or of another, if the mistake is one from which there is learning and improvement.

As we become progressively aware of corporate accountability for all its impact on people and planet, businesses are no longer questioning ‘why’ they should be responsible. Social sustainability, along with economic viability and environmental considerations, is largely accepted as integral to the future of businesses, its resources and its consumers. Indeed, co-creating a happy and sustainable world may well be the overarching purpose business leaders hold in mind. This is why the discourse is transitioning more seriously towards questions relating to the ‘how’ and the ‘what’. For example, how can supply chains be free of child labour or forced labour risks? What do we need to do in order to ensure fair socio-economic value is derived for everyone along the supply chain?

In my work, I am very often asked to provide simple answers to complex human rights risks. The truth is that there is often no easy formula where taking X inputs and making Y actions is going to equal Z (i.e. supply chains free of human rights risks). To be clear, no one is asking for a silver bullet, but there is often a deep assumption that social issues in supply chains can be solved within a short space of a few years or even months.

We are constantly told of the ‘urgency’ with which human rights issues need to be solved (albeit with reason). Global plans may set out ambitious timeframes and advocates will demand answers with the highest of exigencies. Although solving intractable social protection concerns in supply chains requires priority attention, complicated issues must not be approached with haste. In fact, the more complex the issue, the more it requires a calm, focused and evidenced method. Whilst deadlines and numbers provide the impetus for a paced approach and constant attention to evaluating progress, the resulting pressure can often direct people to counting in the wrong place. In turn, this may create situations where working through a series of short term goals, though comforting, can often protract the issue much longer than it needs.

When it comes to complex social issues across supply chains, particularly where they involve children, migrant workers or other such people from marginalised communities, there are many different factors that require attention before outcomes such as child protection or worker welfare can be guaranteed. Solutions require many different actors to work systemically across business, government and communities; and often in societies which are impoverished or lacking in basic infrastructure. Socio-economic and political dynamics mesh to produce underlying systems that take sophisticated cooperation to untangle.

All this takes time, investment and learning.

The first step in any action plan must be to lean in to the complexity and improve business knowledge about the causes, drivers and sustainable responses to the issue. What responsible business leaders will often find is that there are very few (if any) precedents providing a roadmap or model of how things should be done. Each situation is unique. There may well be a guideline or manual (which may be more confusing than practical) but in the main, business leaders are being called quite literally, to lead the way.

Persistent learning and earnest integration are what defines and distinguishes authentic leadership. Learning also requires an iterative approach, whilst having the stamina to withstand the risk of blame, and the patience to communicate one’s purposeful journey.

This is why, as we enter the new decade, I call on business leaders to bravely make good the ‘mistakes’ of the past and adopt the superpower of #2020vision (of hindsight), to be steadfast in building a future with a realistic timescale, incorporating time and resources for learning as we go.

-Aarti Kapoor