By Jenna Cyprus
By its very definition, sustainability is about preparing for the future. Sustainable strategies are ones that can be carried out, indefinitely, without any finite limitation on resources or deliverability. Present-focused decisions can be valuable, and are sometimes necessary, but they intentionally ignore future repercussions. If you want your company to succeed, you’ll need to spend more time and money on future-focused endeavors—but what exactly does that mean, and how can you get there?
Why future-focused decisions are often better
- They prioritize long-term objectives. First and most obviously, future-focused decisions prioritize long-term objectives, so they pay off in the long term. If you make a decision that helps you only today, the benefit is going to be short-lived. The tradeoff is, of course, those payoffs won’t come for several years.
- They have more time to be adjusted. Long-term goals need to be pursued over the course of many years, rather than months or weeks. This gives them more time and more opportunities to be adjusted. This allows you to adapt to new circumstances and polish your plan before it’s fully carried out, often improving its efficiency or focus.
- They come with a higher ROI. Overall, long-term investments tend to pay off in higher proportions to the original investment amount. This is because they have a longer period of time to mature (in addition to being more adaptable).
- Long-term equity investments. Consider the world of equity investing. It’s possible to run a day trading-style strategy, buying and selling stocks within a day to maximize profit, but it’s almost always better to buy and hold for the long term, or at least invest in futures, which give you higher leverage and a long-term focus. You’ll be forfeiting a significant share of your money temporarily, but the long-term gains are worth it.
- Clean energy installations. Most companies depend heavily on coal and other fossil fuels, or at least traditional forms of energy for the bulk of their operations. That’s because investing in clean energy, like wind and solar, can be expensive. A single building may require hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, which could feasibly pay off—but only after several years of operation. This is a decision that doesn’t carry an immediate benefit (other than public recognition), but is vital if you want to save money and protect the environment long-term.
- Dramatic process overhauls. Companies are also reluctant to undergo major changes to the way they do business; they’d rather stick to what they know works decently than take a risk on something that could turn out excellent or terrible. For example, while many people cite “New Coke” as a classic example of poor company decision making, the investment Coca-Cola made into creating a new, better recipe was a reasonable business decision; it cost over $4 million to conduct research, and they ended up with a product that people objectively preferred in blind taste tests. Coca-Cola was willing to make the investment and take the chance because they wanted an even more competitive product.
- Major staffing changes. It’s never easy to let someone go at your company, and it’s even harder when that person is in a leadership role. Still, sometimes it’s necessary to make staffing changes to maximize the potential growth of your organization. Any costs and challenges you face in procuring new, better talent are likely worth it.
- Infrastructural improvements. Making major changes or additions to your current infrastructure is costly, time-consuming, and frankly, a pain for everyone involved. But if planned properly, it could revolutionize how you operate. On a large scale, the transcontinental railroad is a perfect example of this; it took many years to complete, but once in place, it transformed the United States into a single, cohesive, connected entity rather than independently acting bits and pieces.
So how can you tell if a decision is future-focused? And if it is, how can you go about making it in a way that stakeholders will approve of?
- Set the right tone. Many organizations use a “brand voice” to align their employees under the same set of values, principles, and behaviors. If you want your managers and employees to make more future-focused, sustainable decisions, the tone needs to come from the top; you need to restructure and consistently reinforce this tone.
- Zoom out. When you’re discussing how to move forward, it’s easy to get stuck thinking about today, rather than tomorrow. Try to ignore perspectives based on how you currently feel about your business, and what you’re currently doing. Instead, think more abstractly and higher-level. You can improve your ability to visualize this by taking the perspective of people outside your organization, who won’t be affected by the costs as immediately as you will.
- Do more research. Chances are, if you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find objective data and numbers that prove your future-focused decision is more valuable to you. Do more research, and you’ll be able to prove to yourself and others that this line of effort is worth it. It’s hard to argue against math equations that logically conclude that one decision is better than the other.
- Chart out a timeline. If you’re concerned about how your changes will play out, or what might happen in the meantime, chart out a timeline of hypothetical events. You can also prepare for the unexpected by charting out parallel “worst-case” and “best-case” scenario timelines. This helps you visualize how your decision will unfold over the course of months and years, rather than hours and days, and compensates for at least some variability in your decision.
- Solicit opinions. Hear out other members of your board and team. They’ll help you form a fuller perspective of the organization as a whole. Obviously, you can’t make your decisions based solely on what other people think, but the more perspectives you gather, the more objective you’ll be in your reasoning.
- Be proactive. If you see a plan that has short-term benefits and long-term consequences, call it out. You may not be able to prevent every similar maneuver, but the more proactive and vocal you are about the importance of sustainability, the more your team’s decisions will start to drift toward emphasizing the future.
- Delegate responsibilities. Task your managers and supervisors with executing their own future-focused decisions, and put them in charge of ensuring their subordinates do the same. All of your managers should be tasked with adopting and nurturing future-focused mentalities.
- Tie everything back to the bottom line. If you’re in a position to prove the worth of your decision-making skills, or if you need approval to follow through on a project, tie everything back to the bottom line—profitability—when making your pitch.
- Find a balance. Obviously, not all of your decisions can be based on the developments of the next decade. You will have to incorporate some short-term decision making. The key is to find a balance, rather than relying on one over the other.
Everything starts with adopting a different mentality for all your decisions, big and small; think about the impact they’ll have in the future, whether that’s in six weeks or six years, rather than the costs and challenges they’ll bring you in the immediate future. When you make sustainability your biggest priority in company direction and decision making, you open the door to much better opportunities.