Why You Should NOT Act Immediately on Sustainability

A few years ago we published an article focusing on why it's better to initially step back rather than immediately acting on sustainability, and we thought it is worth another share. Enjoy:

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. E-mail, 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:

1. Observe

From Partnoy: The first step of any good decision is to take in information. What are opponents doing? How are they superior or weaker? Are there relative drawbacks to your product or service? This first step is the easiest one to ignore under time pressure. But it is the anchor to good decision-making. Great leaders assess how the winds are changing before they set sail. So the first step is simple: what do you see?

For Sustainability: What are the big issues driving our sustainability impacts? What are the global, regional, and industry trends that impact our operations and our supply chains? What are customers asking for and how are those requests changing? Where do we stand now with regard to carbon emissions, water use, stakeholder engagement, transparency, human rights, and product responsibility? Do we know where we have good data, and where we are making assumptions?

2. Orient

From Partnoy: Once you have gathered the relevant information, the next step is to process it and position yourself for a decision. Orientation means becoming aware of the implications of what you are seeing. How important are particular strengths and weaknesses? Where is the open water? The second step also gets lost when time is tight. Yet without a proper orientation, a business will head off in the wrong direction.

For Sustainability: Who are our most important stakeholders, and what sustainability issues do they care about? How do they think about sustainability -- as an environmental issue? A quality issue? A competitiveness issue? A cost-savings issue? Where are the biggest hot-spots of opportunity for us? What trade-offs are we willing to make? What are we absolutely NOT willing to compromise?

3. Decide

From Partnoy: Finally, once a manager has gathered information and understands the key questions (who, what, when, and where), it is time to make a choice. Notice that this step is distinct from action. It is purely mental, the moment before implementation. For the third step, it is important to make a confident, firm move. This decision is not the first — nor will it be the last. There will be time to adjust later. Remember, the enemy is watching.

For Sustainability: Choose a focus area and get started. Remember, sustainability is too big to tackle at once, and trying to do it all means you won't make big progress on anything. It makes more sense to dive into a specific area (like establishing good data management systems, or revamping a production process, or going all-out on paper reduction in the office) and do it well, then build on that momentum to tackle the next thing. Just remember to use the insight you've gathered in step one: observe and step two: orient to choose a meaningful focus area.

4. Act

From Partnoy: Finally, every business person understands the importance of execution. Once a decision has been made, it should be implemented in the most efficient, straightforward manner. Don't look back. The fourth step is not the final one. Once it is complete, go back to step one: observe. Don't second-guess. Instead, assess. How quickly do you need to change your product cycle? Are your customers changing? What information do you need? Ask these questions, and then look.

For Sustainability: Make sure you have appropriate resources allocated for execution and implementation. Don't skimp. Then do it -- right away. Don't hesitate. And then, once you've acted, look back and assess your progress. What worked? What didn't? What lessons can be learned for the next round of OODA?

What do you think about using OODA for sustainability decision-making? Leave a comment here, or join the conversation on Twitter (@jenniferwoofter).