Systems thinking offers several key lessons for business.
1) Expand the boundaries of our mental models.
Most of our current sustainability efforts target symptoms of unsustainability rather than the causes. Our vehicles burn too much oil and generate too much CO2, so we target that symptom with standards to raise the efficiency of new cars. But the resulting reduction in oil demand will lower oil prices, undermining the incentive for people to buy efficient vehicles or cut oil use in other industries.
By expanding the boundaries of our mental models, we can identify the potential for such “policy resistance” and design more effective policies. Raising the price of CO2 will encourage auto companies to design more efficient vehicles and encourage consumers to choose them without the need for complex regulations, while simultaneously offsetting the drop in world oil prices.
2) Recognize constraints.
Many of us are overstressed and operate in overstressed organizations. Trying to do too much means we are often unable to marshal the resources we need to kick-start improvements in productivity, quality and sustainability. The result is a self-reinforcing trap of low performance, overstressed resources and failed improvement programs. Firms that succeed in quality and sustainability free up the resources needed to improve by slowing down and focusing on the long-term
Similarly, we live on a finite world. Therefore, “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron. Striving for perpetual growth while we degrade the carrying capacity of our world is self-defeating.
Forward-thinking firms understand that destroying the environment also destroys the possibility of profitable enterprise. They are working to provide products that last longer and offer greater value; to take responsibility for their operations and products over their full lifecycle, including takeback and recycling; and to provide services to support the wellbeing and fulfillment of their customers instead of simply selling more stuff at lower and lower margins.
3) Move beyond technical solutions
. Technology offers hope that we can build a more sustainable world. But market failures limit the efficient allocation of capital and resources, including creativity and innovation. And there are long lags from problem recognition to innovation, commercial viability and scale up. Technology often generates unintended consequences: for example, taller smokestacks reduce local smog but increase distant acid rain.
Innovation in markets, institutions and governance is essential to realize the full potential of technology. Externalities must be priced. Market failures must be corrected. We can make technology more effective by improving market signals, through regulations that create level playing fields and prevent a race to the environmental bottom, and through monitoring to prevent free riding and unintended consequences.
4) Confront our values
. Our guiding values offer the most important leverage point for enduring, sustainable change
. Recently, I asked MBA students how much money they needed to be happy. The average response was $2 million per year, and about half said more is always better. Most would accept lower income — as long as they could make more than everyone else. But obviously endless material growth on a finite world is impossible, and everyone cannot be richer than everyone else, no matter how clever our technology.
Those who are currently affluent must confront the culture of consumption, the conflation of having with being, that is destroying both the environment and human well being, while supporting the legitimate aspirations of billions around the world to rise out of poverty.
5) Recognize that we can make a difference.
People often feel powerless in the face of huge, complex systems. But understanding how systems work helps us to find the high leverage points that make a difference. People often recoil from climate science because they fear that what they do can’t possibly matter. But we’ve created more astonishing change before, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the peaceful end of Apartheid.The abolition of the slave trade and slavery in England can serve as a model for action on climate change and sustainability
: a few committed individuals found the high leverage points and ended an institution that had existed from the dawn of history, one that nearly all assumed would always exist.
History shows we can
do it. But will
we? That depends on you.