It’s time to stop blurring the lines of intention and action

Ebony Gaylor
By Ebony Gaylor | 23 May 2023
Ebony Gaylor

Did you see the news this week from the World Meteorlogical Organisation? It’s really likely we’re about to see the world warm up by 1.5 degrees, scary scary stuff. For businesses brave enough to do something about this - read on.

Commitments, promises and campaigns alone have never been enough when it comes to tackling social and environmental issues. And with the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development goals deadline looming and businesses facing increasing scrutiny and risk of ‘greenwashing,’ we have reached a point where we need to better understand intention, define action and figure out how entire industries can have a more tangible impact on the social and environmental issues we need to address.

Thanks to increasing expectations, visibility and regulation, the role of business as a responsible actor in society has gone beyond the age-old debates of shareholder versus stakeholder or purpose versus profit. Now there’s an opportunity for business leaders to pave a new path, mobilising their power and influence in a way that leverages the unique value of both purpose and profit, rather than putting them at odds with one another.

Key to this shift is helping leaders to consistently push for more than commitments on social and environmental issues. Sure, intentions are important and we do need businesses to make public commitments (like reducing their negative footprint, to do no harm, to improve balance or equity) but, let’s be clear these are not actions. Aspirations and promises, no matter how well we dress them up, when done en masse contribute to a very problematic intention-to-action gap. If we don’t pay attention to this important difference, we could ride all the way to 2030 having made loads of promises, told nice stories of change and still have had no measurable impact.

Intention and Action
Intention can be thought of as a conscious plan or commitment to do something. Action, on the other hand, is a tangible thing done to have a positive contribution to social, systemic or environmental issues.

There’s an important difference here, intentions are subjective and future oriented, for example “we commit to improving diversity and inclusion in our company”. Sure it’s a good statement, but we can’t easily assess it, and it might (or might not) happen. Actions are the things that are tangible things we do, like implementing inclusive hiring practice or delivering a campaign to raise awareness about diversity and inclusion.

But, sometimes we jump too easily from intention all the way to impact without pausing to understand the specific actions that need to happen for a big system issue to change. This can be hard though, because not all action is a public announcement or awareness raising campaign. Here are a few quick questions to make sure you can pause and bridge that intention-to-action gap:

  • Is the idea something that can be implemented or delivered on?
  • Are we making a conscious and intentional choice to act?
  • Is the idea something that is observable or measurable by others?
  • Are we putting the appropriate effort or resourcing behind the idea?
  • Do we have a clear and specific goal that our action is trying to achieve?

To be clear, intentions aren't the problem. The problem is when we see these intentions, promises or commitments as the end point rather than a piece of the system change puzzle. Added to that, in the very near future, stakeholders will be totally disinterested in what your business is committed to and far more interested in the specific, observable and measurable actions your business is taking to address social and environmental challenges.

The leaders who understand that purpose and profit are not in competition with one another and can bridge this intention-to-action gap, will not only be the change makers that make a real difference in the world, they’ll also be the leaders who build the most creative and resilient companies beyond 2030.

Ready to act?

Ebony Gaylor, Managing Partner and Founder of D.O.A a social cause consultancy

comments powered by Disqus