The Sustainability Myth

Floating Coffee Mug

It is popular for people at work and on social media to talk about sustainability. In the former case, the context is usually some major initiative, program, change, while in the latter case the context is often about selling solutions that promise to help managers in some way — to lead better, to behave better, to be more successful, to get better business results, etc.

Sustainability — a myth I believed in some time ago and then realized my error — remains prevalent in Lean world and adjacent “solutions” to business and leadership performance problems — e.g., leadership behaviors, resistance to change, culture change, etc.

Talk of sustainability troubling because there is vastly more evidence of its opposite, unsustainability, in the contexts previously described. That is because of the inevitable changes in leadership, changes in ownership, changes in the marketplace, or just general changes in business circumstances. These cause organizations to abandon, or cycle through, one major initiative, program, or change after another.

The various change initiatives and solutions have proven to be ephemeral, typically lasting 1 to 10 years, and thus unsustainable, not necessarily by design but by ever-changing circumstances. As the above image shows, a coffee mug does not sustainably float in the air by itself. An input of energy — a human hand — is required to raise the coffee mug above the desk and keep if above the desk. Without a human hand, the coffee mug immediately falls to the desk.

Any organization that has had longer-term (>10 years) success with change initiatives or solutions has put a lot of energy into keeping it going — energy from CEO on down, with provisions made for avoiding the inevitable disruptions caused by various changes in circumstances.

So, sustainability, if it does occur, does not happen only because of an initiative or solution. People must constantly put a lot of energy into it for a long time, which is difficult to do because — less because of alignment problems and more because of the inevitability of changing circumstances. And when that happens, classical management, like gravity, awaits, ready to pull everyone back into old ways of thinking and doing things.

Unfortunately, what has been sustainable over vast stretches of time is classical management and the associated leadership thinking and practice. It survives, while everything else that is designed to displace it fades away sooner or later. Instead of thinking about sustainability, think about what it takes to commit to never-ending hard work, much as professional musicians do.

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