Sustainability strategies: Why top managers still miss the mark

In the past decades and up to today, our economic paradigm focussed on efficiency. If you studied the classical way of engineering, industrial design or management, chances are that you're in the habit of dancing to this exact tune – while overlooking eco-effectiveness.
Written by
Hiram Broemme

Co-Founder & Creative Director

This probably shows most when it comes to sustainability.

If something shows to be bad for the environment, we set out to make it more efficient so it turns out to be less bad in the future.

Yet, as the inventor of modern day management Peter Drucker once said: »There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all«. Accellerating in the wrong direction faster doesn’t help and as Prof. Braungart would put it: »We make the wrong things perfect – and then they are perfectly wrong«.

In the last couple of years I had the honor to talk with him and other bright minds about this topic. Today I want to share some of the the collected insights and how you can implement them in your corporate identity, culture and strategy.

Efficiency is not enough (and never will be)

Alright, in a nutshell: Effectiveness is to make the right things, efficiency is to make the things right.

The paradox is that it’s exactly high output people who often don’t think too much within the category of effectiveness. Both top managers and industrial engineers are highly trained to produce more efficient. But what about the effect?

Recently, I had a lovely conversation with a young industrial engineer to which this article is dedicated to. In a joined effort, we discovered that the classical engineering education is missing completely the mark, remembering Druckers words: »Efficiency, which is doing things right, is irrelevant until you work on the right things.«

Effectiveness must come before efficiency, otherwise you are misplacing your efforts

Effectiveness first, efficiency second

So we need to ask first: What do we actually want to achieve? What is the true objective? Before we out our mind to the flawless execution part of things, we first need to find a sense of direction.

Let’s apply this to the sustainability efforts of our species: How do we want to live on this planet? What do we leave behind when we go? What is our contribution, our reason of existence?

The answer to these questions is what forms the DNA and spine of true changemakers. To leverage the power of their 21st century neocortex to zoom out and pick the right battle, defining purpose before engineering smooth workflows.

Lead the way with your highest contribution. Become unstoppable with doing the right things.

Not starting here, you are likely to manage the bad instead of leading for good. This is especially true in the sustainability discussion.

»We think it's enough if we destroy a little less by driving less or producing less waste. But we're not protecting the environment, we're just destroying less. We don't protect our child by hitting it ‘only’ five times instead of ten. We don't need more sustainability, we need a paradigm shift.«

– Prof. Michael Braungart, Co-Founder of Cradle to Cradle®

Hitting a child is simply the wrong metric, you are starting at the wrong place. You can implement fancy management techniques to do less of it, but still it’s bad. It’s better to develop a positive relationship and deep caring.

Apply this to sustainability and environmental protection.

How do you measure your impact on your environment?

CO2, carbon footprint, pollution of oceans? Is it a real contribution to do less of it? Are you sure?

Take this example: An apple tree doesn’t create waste that will pollute the next thousands of generations for the wellbeing of only a few generations alive right now, like we did with atom energy in the past century.

The apple tree…

  • gives oxygen to the atmosphere
  • cleans the air
  • creates room for biodiversity
  • stores carbon from the atmosphere in the soil
  • recycles resources indefinitely for generations to come
  • gives juicy, delicious and healthy apples in abundance every year

These are all positive measurements of sustainability, not bad ones. Think about it. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, right? Then start by measuring the right metrics.

So chances are that some apple trees are producing more intelligently than you do right now. Let’s change that, let’s learn from from nature and not accept trees being smarter than us. My grandmother, a master of art always said: »You have to study nature to become a master«. She was right, even when it comes to business. Thanks granny, I never knew you were a savvy future-proof business strategist.

The other two strategies of sustainability doesn’t help either

Efficiency is one of the three sustainability strategies. Let’s discuss for a moment why none of them goes all the way to a future-proof economy.

The three sustainability strategies: sufficiency, efficiency and consistency.

Suffiency is as a rule of thumb efficiency from the consumer side, of reducing consumption altogether. Yet the fundamental problem doesn’t fade: If you reduce the bad it’s still bad, but less of it. Degrowth doesn’t help. Actually, we need the right companies and products to grow fast enough to replace the old.

Consistency alone also lacks. Sure, you can recycle everything 100% in a lean local circular economy, but when you still use toxic materials and poison nature around you, you don’t have truly progressed. Why? Now you can be a toxic influence on your enviroment for some more time. It’s still not aligned with what is really good and not set up to build a regenerative economy for the generations to come.

The recurring pattern here is one-dimensional thinking: Discussions around sustainability most often focus on suffiency and efficiency. When these two dots connect we have one dimension. Add a circular consistency approach and you have two dimensions covered, while you still don’t get the truly good label that the apple tree would be awarded.

Put it all together: Three sustainability strategies as the way of achieving eco-effectiveness

What we need is higher dimensional thinking to see the bigger picture here.

Have effectiveness govern all of our efforts and align ourselves to how nature operates around us, a best practice with an impressive track record of billions of years.

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