Why You Should Wait to Act on Sustainability

by | Dec 11, 2012

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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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