An irresistible invitation

Written by Anne Owen & Andres Roberts, facilitators of WBA’s first deep dive session

“Would you like to meet a new, interesting colleague, and see if you can work together to facilitate the first ‘deep-dive session’ for Allies of the WBA? Oh, and by the way, it will be at the Rockefeller Centre in beautiful Bellagio on the shores of Lake Como. In 6 weeks’ time.” It takes a very trusting client organisation to ask that question in this way. But myself and Andres know that the World BenchmarkingAlliance (WBA) operates in a way that other clients would find challenging. I think it took both Andres and I, in our different parts of the UK, a half-second to say ‘yes’ to this ‘arranged marriage’.

Supporting the WBA in its consultative roundtables all over the world during the past year, bringing Allies from civil society, NGOs, policymakers, investors and corporates together, has been an adventure in the valuing of difference. It was also a very real reminder that nothing complex can be achieved without including all perspectives.

Setting course

At Bellagio we were very aware of the whole group, including ourselves as facilitators, as being a reflection of the different universes we represent. All organisations and sectors have unconscious norms; ways of dialoguing, topics they prioritise, views that they lead with. In gathering to talk WBA, we were working with the fable of the four blind men and the elephant. Before we could agree what we were dealing with, we knew we had to start with finding out about each other as people: what matters to us, what strengths we bring and what matters to the organisations we represent? We must continue to ask these questions at a human level in the Alliance, so that we can bridge the deep-rooted suspicion that often exists between civil society groups, corporates, investors, and business platforms. I believe this is the real challenge for the Alliance. It has to take the stance that no perspective is intrinsically ‘wrong’, but that collectively there is a responsibility not to damage the world irretrievably. Each member has to somehow reconcile being in an Alliance with others who they may in fact spend time challenging in their day to day jobs. Members may also feel at times that the Alliance is competing with the goals or priorities of their own organisations, but as an ally you want to stay connected because you are committed to the overarching purpose of the Alliance. The family analogy would present this as is like being a step-childin one family whilst trying not to betray one’s family of origin. Somehow, wehave to find a way to be loyal, but not blindly so, to both, while focusing onshared goals. It’s grown-up stuff. To kick start the ‘deep-dive session’, weneeded to get personally connected to the Alliance by telling the story of itsevolution. Everyone has their own version of this story and gathering togetherin a circle, with a ‘fishbowl’ group in the middle, and people moving in andout of the ‘bowl’ as their turn in the story arrived, was a lovely experience.I think we would all have liked it to be round a campfire, and metaphoricallyit was just that: the story of the beginning.

Impact, Methods and Form

The purpose for the Alliance, as I see it, is clear: holding companies accountable and improving the world, while leaving no living being behind. The means of doing this, however, was less clear and proved to be the true purpose of the Alliance’s work. Andres and I were helped in our thinking about how to plan the deep-dive through conversations with almost all of the attendees. We asked them where they are now in relation to the WBA. It became very clear that we needed to focus the session on three areas: Impact, Methods and Form.

Impact: The Theory of Change

The WBA has, in consultation with key stakeholder groups, been driving the development of the institutional Theory of Change (TOC)over the past several months. This TOC is built on the notion that a systems-transformation approach is needed to drive the scale of change necessary to achieve the SDGs. At our deep-dive, we took this TOC to the next level, combining academic research on bringing about social change, while weaving in the real-life experiences of the Allies. One big area of conversation involved the need to expand the TOC to take into account human processes. What is the importance of behaviour change? What is needed to motivate and inspire consumers to actively use the benchmarks to influence their decision-making? This evolution of the TOC felt like a huge achievement of the deep-dive week and provided an important roadmap for the WBA to continue developing and refining with Allies over the coming months as it builds a compelling case for how benchmarks can drive real impact in the areas where it is most needed.

Method: Building a Benchmark

There is nothing like co-creating to build commitment, and we also emerged from the week with a clear process for the technical elements of building benchmarks, as well as a better understanding of the need to ensure that benchmarks are additive, iterative, and complementary to existing efforts. Recognising that the WBA operates in a crowded space and that sustainability, corporate reporting, and SDG measurement and monitoring are ever-evolving concepts, it was important to hammer out the details: How to build a benchmark? How to engage companies in providing relevant data? How to ensure accuracy, and how to leverage the use of benchmarks and communicate their impact? It was also critical to understand the power in building on what works and not reinventing the wheel. Three days and many flipcharts later, we arrived in a good place. The insights gleaned from these sessions will be critical for the WBA in the coming months as it works to build methodologies for its first benchmarks and facilitate knowledge-sharing and best-practices with others in the space.

Form: Engaging with Allies

From our initial conversations with Allies, it was clear that the WBA has evolved quickly and will continue to do so. While exciting, this creates a risk for when it comes to information-sharing, engagement, and inclusivity, and we knew we had to build a strategic and tactical plan for community engagement for the Alliance. This quickly migrated from being a list on two flipcharts to a mind-map that filled a giant wall. The guidelines that will set the first stepping stones towards the Alliance’s terms of engagement will be complemented by a clear vision of what we want the Alliance to look like and the roadmap needed to get us there. The engagement terms may only partially contribute to waking the thirst of the right organisations, but the WBA also needs to be proactive in its outreach. It must actively ensure it builds an Alliance that is balanced and representative in order to stay true to its mission and values. Having a clear value proposition that outlines what the Alliance expects of its Allies, and what its Allies can expect from the Alliance, will be an important part of ensuring that the WBAremains a mutually beneficial platform that encourages continual learning, growth, and co-creation.


Apart from the essential side of building personal relationships with all the Allies who joined us at Bellagio, the three above mentioned topics will be taken forward as tangible pieces of work throughout 2019 and beyond. When considering the depth and breadth of the conversations, the ‘deep-dive session’ was a pretty amazing feat for 19 people who were virtually strangers to each other before. We left with a good sense of personal connection and achievement, despite a longlist of things that need to be done!

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