More Evidence That You Should Wait to Act on Sustainability


In November, we wrote, “Why You Should Wait to Act On Sustainability” for Environmental Leader. The comments were...interesting, and showed that there was a lot of disagreement about the premise to move more slowly and thoughtfully on corporate sustainability initiatives. But we're sticking to our guns- and we’re very pleased to see more evidence that supports our position.

In the Inc. article, “How to Make Better Decisions: Slow Down”, author Jessica Stillman provides a great round-up of some of the best thinking and ideas regarding fast vs. slow decision-making. Here are some of the highlights:

In their new book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, brothers and academics Chip (of Stanford Graduate School of Business) and Dan Heath (of Duke) explore how to eliminate biases and improve the quality of our decisions. One of the biggest decision-making mistakes they tackle is our tendency not to waffle but to decide too quickly. Stanford's Re:Think newsletter explains that the authors devote a considerable portion of the book to the idea of widening your options, advice that may seem at odds with the very definition of decision making.

This is huge insight for sustainability practitioners, who should remember that one of the best ways to widen your options is to engage with stakeholders along the value chain. Don't just ask your green team to come up with great ideas -- ask your suppliers, your customers, your contractors, and your investors. 

The goal, in other words, isn't to go fast and eliminate options. It's to slow down and add them. So how do you accomplish this? The key, the authors say, is taking the time to gather information and alternatives. Using devil’s advocates, asking people who have solved similar problems, gathering relevant statistics, and soliciting the advice of friends and family members can all help.

While you're gathering all of this information, it can be helpful to have a structured process in order to capture insights for later review. After all, it's easy to lose track of who said what, emerging themes and where they are coming from, and ideas worth following up on. So take some time BEFORE you begin your decision-making process to think about how you will engage, and how you'll manage the inflow of information.

You might object that today's market moves too fast for such lollygagging. But Heath replies that considering less information rarely actually saves time, either because we make bad decisions (and then stick with the path we've chosen long after we should abandon it) or because we waste time anyway waffling over limited data and alternatives.

Yes! Based upon our sustainability consulting experience, we have found that taking the time to gather lots of options has allowed our clients to make confident decisions and execute them fully -- rather than make half-cocked initiatives that get only partial support or just lip service.

The Heath brothers aren't the only people warning leaders not to be seduced by quick decision making, of course. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote a whole best-selling book on the limitations of quick thinking called, appropriately, Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you haven't picked it up yet, it's well worth a read in full and is packed with examples of how our knee-jerk decision-making machinery can lead us astray, as well as techniques to short-circuit bias. But for the quick-and-dirty summary, look to Harvard Business Review, which offers this article on one technique, the premortem, and another article by Kahneman himself outlining the basics of why quick decision making is often bad decision making.

So what do you think? Leave a comment here, or join the conversation on Twitter (@jenniferwoofter).