Climate change is arriving faster and harder than expected, and our sustainability strategies are not equal to the challenge. Why? Our well-meaning sustainability decisions commonly make only incremental improvements or backslide to business as usual. Current trajectories won’t sustain most organizations for long — let alone save the planet.
We must make course corrections that accelerate progress exponentially. That will happen only when organizations in every sector work smarter to make sustainability a business-enhancing necessity, rather than a supplement to mainstream business strategies.
Seemingly conflicting demands for business results and sustainability place decision-makers smack between rocks and hard places. The far-from-optimal effect is that people succumb to a common cognitive bias: feeling they have to choose one clear option, to the neglect of the other.
Making an either/or choice resolves the conflict temporarily, but it avoids the high-value alternative: to find better options sitting beyond the obvious ones. This is where sustainability efforts often fall short, and where vast potential awaits discovery.
Win/lose and even win/win thinking bring disappointing, inefficient harvests
Author James Collins uses the phrase “tyranny of the or” to signify the tensions and constraints of either/or thinking in the face of conflicting demands. Business vs. environment is a long-standing example, as is long-term investment vs. short-term results.
Short-term numbers still drive most choices. But even “both/and” decision-making efforts often yield cursory and fleeting results, plucking mostly just low-hanging fruit. Such win/wins fall short of potential for many reasons including:
1. After initial disagreements, people avoid further conflict by settling for mediocre compromises that no one opposes vehemently.
2. Finding an alignment in which a business case can support a modest sustainability option is satisfying, and that ends the discussion, saving the extra time and effort of seeking even better alternatives.
3. Favoring one competing element over another relieves the immediate conflict because the decision is made and done with.
Inevitably, the underlying issues resurface later. The net is that we could’ve done better, and the conflicts and inadequate environmental performances continue.
Sadly, untapped are the upsides available to realizing Collins’ “genius of the and”— successfully pursuing both purpose and profits. Third options, and even better fourth and fifth options, are discoverable via more complex, nuanced and creative thinking. These solutions arise via stimulating conversations that wrestle explicitly with the conflicts and tensions inherent to complex challenges.
So — if not conventional either/or thinking, then what?
Use a paradox mindset to build an ambidextrous organization
Only smarter both/and thinking will gather the prolific harvests we need. Managers and organizations can achieve this by adopting a paradox mindset, which knows that contradictory elements or tensions signify integrative potential. Even though the conflicts are uncomfortable, decision-makers acknowledge, confront and relish the challenge.
Actively and strategically working through competing pressures creates a culture that values and effectively pursues a paradox approach to uncovering the genius of the and. Bigger wins start with explicitly identifying sustainability’s inherent tensions, and then applying paradoxical thinking to create maximum ambidexterity.
To be ambidextrous is to competently pursue, merge and attain two inherently conflicting goals. Organization theorist James March immortalized this concept for management scholars, describing the need for firms to simultaneously exploit what they know best while also exploring for new knowledge and possibilities.
Without ambidexterity driving exponential course corrections, we don’t sustain single organizations, let alone the planet.
The paradoxical thinking inherent to ambidexterity is not just for lone decision makers. Far easier, more effective and higher-leverage is to generate new options by discussing with other people. Together, explicitly state the various tensions people feel, and exchange different perspectives, relevant expertise and ideas.
Hit a lot of singles by finding sustainability actions that can be supported with a reasonable business case, but also collaborate insistently and over time to hit more home runs. Some innovations are incremental, and some are radical; accelerating the sustainability curve requires both/and, as created via paradoxical thinking.
The extra time and effort can pay off handsomely because the process will generate smarter decisions and better results, and become embedded in the culture. More profound problem solutions create more sustained progress, and future challenges grow smaller, relative to what otherwise would lie ahead.
This is easier said than done, of course. But it is doable by engaging collaboratively in paradoxical thinking, and by creating and sustaining a culture that worships the smartest possible decision processes.
Thoughts and comments such as “We have just two options” and “We have no choice” can serve as useful prompts in a smarter search for the best possible scale and scope ideas. Keep working the problem by asking again for better solutions until the well honestly runs dry.
Over time, such decision-making processes enact ambidextrous strategies capable of optimizing financial and environmental, and short- and long-term, outcomes. Sustainability conversations move from shallow, peripheral one-offs to a legitimate strategy contributing to both desirable business outcomes and positive social impact.
Sustainable impacts accumulate and escalate over time through multiple both/and decisions. Actions that contribute to sustainability can reveal new strategic reasons and tactics for expanding mainstream business activities. The strategies begin merging and feeding off one another. Learning along the way, lessons move down, up and across the organization, and spread through inter-organizational collaborations.
Pushing ambidexterity top-down is a powerful driver. Meanwhile, mid- and lower-level operational decisions driven by paradoxical thinking can coalesce over time into ambidextrous business and corporate strategies.
Remember the bigger picture
Andrew Hoffman, scholar of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan, sees sustainability as an accelerating change in competitive dynamics that demands strategic repositioning. Managers who prefer to can remain agnostic about climate science and politics, but they must recognize realities and consider sustainability a core element of — not peripheral to — mainstream business.
The challenge currently is to work smarter and accelerate our sustainability trajectory. Technological solutions are readily available and improving, but the key now is for more innovative leaders in all sectors and at all levels to collaborate within and across organizations.
Driving the decision processes that drive ambidexterity, from the top and middle and below, is a type of leadership that can propel exponential improvements in sustainability cultures, practices and impact.