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Good OM Reading: Sustaining Sustainability

February 22, 2015

three laws book2Steve Zaffron, CEO of the Vanto Group and co-author of the best-selling business book, The Three Laws of Performance, believes that sustainability nirvana occurs when social responsibility moves from being expressed in one-off initiatives, siloed in the corporate CSR office, to a way of being and acting that is embedded in the company culture and work habits of employees. Achieving this kind of breakthrough in an established company, with its legacy systems and time-honored practices, is proving to be a tough nut to crack for many sustainability executives, according to a new MIT Sloan Management Review (Feb. 2015) article.

Zaffron, interviewed for the article, has worked with a diverse group of organizations — from rocket-scientist NASA to labor-intensive mining — to achieve this kind of deep organizational renovation. His experience shows that leaps in human performance come less from tangible investments in things like automation, equipment or compensation schemes, and more through intangible transformations in the way people in organizations see themselves and others.

“It’s not an easy thing to change the way in which people see the world and themselves. It takes time to develop,”says Zaffron. And time is an underappreciated variable in sustainability. “It’s obvious when you say it, that sustainability means through time,” states Zaffron, but while perhaps obvious, managing time is a recurring sustainability challenge. If it interjects itself in business sustainability, time usually appears as a constraint imposed by market short-termism. “We’re talking about long-term engagements that are substantial investments,” says Zaffron. “Managers have to know they’re in for the long haul.” Unfortunately, today’s sustainability management is dominated by the search for “quick wins,” which account for over two-thirds of corporate sustainability initiatives.

As opposed to the tangible “quick wins” mindset, the intangible benefits arising from embedded sustainability behaviors take sustained effort to produce. But over time, they create differentiated capabilities that can set an organization apart in the marketplace.

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