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Sustaining change

Sustainability has become one of those buzzwords that I hear flying around my client and community circles. People want to create sustainability in everything from agriculture to business to endowment funds. I’ve heard others discussing the desire to “leave a legacy” for future generations. All of these are well-meaning intentions, but what is hidden beneath the buzzword?

Creating sustainability often means putting a system structure into place that is designed to produce the most benefit in the present while maintaining those benefits in the future. I do not deny that we need systems that function efficiently and effectively in the present, but is the ultimate goal to maintain them for the future?

Another word comes to mind: chronic. This word is usually used in association with a disease or other undesirable condition that has to be managed.  C.S. Holling said, “Placing a system in a straitjacket of constancy can cause fragility to evolve.” In other words, if we carefully  maintain a system, we run the risk of eventually creating weakness that leads to a chronic condition. Chronic conditions take much more time in management, and, after a period of time – perhaps a few years or even as long as a generation – can lead to the death of the system.

So should the idea of sustainability be abandoned? The answer isn’t to be found in keeping our organizations and ourselves in chaos. Instead, I invite you to consider expanding the goals of sustainability from only maintaining a static, stable operating environment to include building a resilient space.

Lest you think I’m piling buzzword on buzzword, I’m defining resilience as creating a bounded space where the system can function effectively and efficiently and have elastic in its boundary. That elastic allows the system to learn, change, and grow in new directions in response to changing conditions around it, while offering a measure of protection. It is both stable and ever changing. If we are going to “leave a legacy,” our organizations must embrace the paradox of sustaining change.

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