The Necessity for Increased Versatility of Thinking

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Present sustainability programs in organizations have severe limitations built into them and the implementers are generally unaware of them. While these programs may reduce resource or fossil fuel energy consumption and reduce environmental pollution, they are not truly sustainable. At best, present day corporate sustainability programs are most often only buying a little time.

One system dynamic that is almost never addressed in contemporary sustainability efforts is money. Since all money is loaned into existence, our economy is structurally required to grow perpetually in order to pay back principal plus interest. Consequently, there is no end to growth and consumption and an ever-increasing mountain of debt—the total U.S. debt increased from $780 billion in 1978 to over $56 trillion today, a 72-fold increase in 34 years. Debt of all kinds is becoming overwhelming in a real world situation of energy supplies and raw material resources that are becoming exponentially more expensive to extract and deliver.

Another equally serious limitation in implementing and operating organizational sustainability programs lies in the realm of cognitive psychology. Our default, or “autopilot,” mental models in use most often do not fully embrace the sustainability perspective.

Most people, most of the time, operate from a rather short-term time perspective that governs their decision-making behaviors. Short-term returns will almost always trump longer-term considerations. As long as an individual or an organization can maximize immediate returns, they are likely to do so, kicking the sustainability can down the road. Making rapid short-term responses was undoubtedly necessary for survival throughout much of human history, but this possibly “hard-wired” tendency doesn’t promote sustainable behavior. A short-term time perspective is helpful in dealing with an immediate emergency, but a longer-term outlook is also necessary to fully embrace sustainability as a future state.

Most people, most of the time, operate from a local or parochial focus of attention that generates “us versus them” dynamics. When combined with the short-term time perspective, the local focus can generate ethnocentrism and “what’s in it for me (or us)?” behaviors that run counter to true sustainability, emphasizing the “rightness” of “our side” and the “wrongness” of the “other.” The local focus may be useful in building a sustainable community, but a global, more broadly inclusive focus is also necessary to establish true sustainability.

Most people, most of the time, operate from a reductionist, or mechanistic system of logic, that attempts to break complex ideas or things into pieces in order to understand the “whole,” and finds itself in an “either-or” stance frequently. While this logic contributes excellently to specializations, it is less effective than systems-based logic in understanding all the subtle “knock-on effects” as the economy, the resource base, the environment, and the still growing global population interact with each other in unsustainable ways.

Most people, most of the time, operate from a blaming & accountability approach to problem consideration, placing priority when problems arise on who is accountable and who is to blame. This approach often results in win-lose conflicts and may also serve to heighten risk aversion in an effort to “not be wrong,” or to devious behavior in an effort to “not get caught.” While this approach can facilitate rule enforcement, a more exploratory learning approach to problems is also necessary to more fully make innovative contributions to a truly sustainable state.

While the short-term, local, mechanistic, blaming & accountability thinking habits clearly stand in the way of establishing a truly sustainable organization, long-term, global, systemic, learning thinking habits, when rigidly adhered to, would likely not do any better! What is needed is versatility of thinking, which suggests fluid movement from short-term to long-term thinking (and so on) as each situation calls for, rather than merely following the habits of thinking that have been reinforced in our society.

As humans, we have the unique ability to reflect on how we are thinking and behaving in any situation and, with learning, change these approaches as needed to be most effective. Sadly, we don’t easily or often call on this unique ability when it matters most. In a recent research study, I identified an even dozen human “success factors” for implementing any complex organizational change and one of these was versatility (appropriate flexibility) of thinking. As the Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing wrote in the 1960s: “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change, until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

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