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Why You Should Wait to Act on Sustainability

Sustainability is a huge, complex, and daunting challenge. And a growing number of companies feel a sense of urgency to do something – anything – to show their stakeholders that they are paying attention. But in the rush to appear responsive, you may be missing the boat. We recently came across the Harvard Business Journal article, Act Fast, but Not Necessarily First. Author Frank Partnoy makes a compelling case for more deliberate decision-making, saying:

“Speed is killing our decisions. The crush of technology forces us to snap react. We blink, when we should think. Email, social media, and 24-hour news are relentless. Our time cycle gets faster every day. Yet as our decision-making accelerates, long-term strategy becomes even more crucial. Those of us who find time to step back and think about the big picture, even for a few minutes, have a major advantage. If every one else moves too quickly, we can win by going slow.” Partnoy goes on to discuss the OODA decision-making framework developed by renowned American fighter pilot John Boyd. OODA – which stands for observe, orient, decide, and act – is a process that out-thinks and outmaneuvers opponents and competitors not by acting first, but by waiting for opponents to act first. While you can argue that there is no “opponent” in sustainability (we’re all part of the problem and the solution), there are some really important lessons in the OODA framework that can benefit companies pursuing a sustainability agenda.

Before we jump in, however, let’s review the general application of OODA to business decision-making from Frank Partnoy:

“In general, we make better decisions when we minimize the time it takes to decide and act — so that we can spend more time observing and orienting. The same applies in business. The faster we can execute a decision, the more time we free up to understand the task, gather information, and analyze the issues. If we require too much time to decide or act, we are forced to finish observing and orienting earlier. And if we act too quickly, we might respond to a problem that changes or even goes away before the deadline.”

Here are the four steps to the OODA framework, with our comments on how they apply to sustainability:

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4 thoughts on “Why You Should Wait to Act on Sustainability

  1. I agree with a lot that is contained in the article, but not with its tone. The time to move forward on sustainability is NOW. The article, as I read it, gives companies the excuse to sit back and take another 6 months or another year to decide. It is obvious that for most companies, now is the time to begin OODA, not wait for the competitors or for technology to change because it’s a dynamic situation (competitors always change and technology gets better). There is never a perfect time, so start now. What does make sense and should be part of the analysis is time management. When one decides that the time to act is now on sustainability, the company must realize that the decision making and implementation takes months and often years, but if done smartly, will reap enormous benefits. I had a client once who promised his CEO that he would create a viable sustainability program for his multinational firm in just a couple of months, I had to inform him that this was impossible, that it would take at least 6 months to get reliable data and analyze options, and then another year to decide and implement.

    I think what you wanted to get across was time management being critical; sustainability can’t be created in a short time, but the time to start to do OODA and other evaluations is NOW.

    Thank you,


  2. Jennifer, you are making it sound hard, when it actually isn’t. It’s simple. We all have to start. NOW! not wait! Lead! The way to lead is by example! And checking out what competitors are doing is pathetic! it’s not about competition, it’s about being a decent corporate citizen!

    The first thing that any corporation should do is show belief by action as individuals. That way anything else they do will be authentic. Decision-makers can start catching the bus, composting at home and in the office, recycling at home and in the office, turning off the lights at home and in the office, conserving water, buying local produce for home. The best way to sart is from an authentic position of understanding. And this can’t wait! Then and only then can any of us can afford to sit back and think what next!

    If you wanna be a leader, you have to live it!

  3. I agree with the comments and admit what caused me to open the link was the provocative title, that being said once I got into the article I didn’t find an excuse to wait to do anything but rather a useful model to move forward with a purpose. Too many managers and companies get caught up in the “two minute news cycle” response and implament strategies that have little long lasting effect. I took the article to read – evaluate now, determine what is important to your organization now and then make sure the actions you take further those goals and needs. A deliberate and well thought approach will lend itself towards an ongoing process that builds upon itself.

    I agree you need to be a leader and you have to live it, but you have to make sure your leading in the best interests of the stakeholders and in a manner that won’t be a flash then fade, but instead becomes part of the corporate culture.

  4. Hi guys – thanks for the comments!

    I believe that it’s important NOT to just “jump in and get started” with sustainability. Sustainability is HUGE – it touches everything and everyone in your organization (and value chain).

    I can’t tell you the number of people that have called my consulting company and said “we need an eco-label” or “we need a sustainability report”. When I ask them why, they stumble. Most of the time, their best answer is “our competitor is doing it” or “we just do!”.

    That is NO WAY to run a sustainability program. I recommend that ALL of my clients take a big step back before undertaking any big sustainability project to answer some basic questions. Why are we doing this? Where are the risks and uncertainties (both pro and con)? Do your stakeholders really care about this issue, or are you creating a false pressure to respond?

    Without taking the time to really understand the landscape and your place in it, you risk spending all of your time and money on a sustainability initiative that is trendy, ineffective, and mis-aligned with your core business. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t act on sustainability – but I am advocating a strategic approach.

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