What is Sustainability?

In a recent budget update, the Victorian Government announced a number of austerity measures to reduce spending and create a “more sustainable public service.” This makes 100% sense to all of us, but exactly what does “sustainability” mean in this instance?

Various definitions tell us it is: a capacity to endure; an ability to be supported or upheld; or being maintained at a steady level without depleting resources or causing damage. Mostly the word is used in an environmental sense but the definition transfers well into a Government context given ongoing need, limited resources and a duty of care for the community.

No one doubts the need to be more efficient and do more with less – this is now a given. Simply applying the notions of enduring, upholding and maintaining however tend to spawn management practices focused on viewing the world with rear-view vision.

A standard management practice is to do the same things we did yesterday but only cheaper and faster. In a time of resource scarcity and rapid change however there is an urgent need to keep moving forward, keeping an eye on the road ahead through the windscreen. The rear-view is an aid to navigation that helps ensure efficiency, compliance and safety. It is not the sole way to navigate forward.

Some extant management mindsets don’t often see new thinking, new design and new approaches as the way forward and with a failure to design forward, short-term views prevail with respect to sustainability. When this happens spending cuts and efficiency gains are focused on at the expense of new thinking and new action. Classic examples of this default thinking include reducing the resourcing of functions such as Learning & Development, Organisational Development and other developmental areas.  These are areas that no one can deny are important for the long term survival (sustainability) of an organisation.

Sustainability is a function of both leadership and management. Where the manager will seek to control and reduce, the leader needs to counter this by taking a longer term view and ensuring those functions that are necessary for long-term (sustained) survival remain resourced and fully functional. They also need to be equipped and engaged to assist everyone else to generate new and improved ways of doing things to ensure both short and long-term sustainability.

There is an absolute need for both approaches using the windscreen and the rear-view, but but we tend to default to the rear-view all too often.

In an environment starved of resources simple reduction can be self-defeating. We can’t just stop, cut, reduce, save and speed things up. We need to be able to commit to designing entirely new means of developing more sustainable practices that include addressing our issues and creating new opportunities going forward.

When your Managers are faced with developing more sustainable practices, will their primary focus be the windscreen or the rear-view mirror?

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About the Author

Frank Connolly is the Principal of “Think Quick”, a business that adds value through thinking differently. His work history covers all sectors and includes initiatives that have yielded bottom line benefit in the 10’s of millions of dollars.

Frank has worked across Australia, South East Asia, China, the Middle East and Africa where he has trained and facilitated multiple thinking methods and been acknowledged by Edward de Bono as one of the foremost practitioners of the de Bono thinking methods worldwide.

Frank believes strongly that if we can improve the way we think, the actions that follow also improve.


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