Six Characteristics of Sustainable Organizations

Someone once asked business strategist and lapsed biologist Martin Reeves a simple question: How can I build a business that lasts 100 years? That question spawned Reeves’ TED talk exploring longevity in business. I believe that longevity is more important for the public sector than for the private sector. Reeves provides crucial insight into building sustainable organizations in the public sector.

Six Factors for Sustainable Organizations

Naturally, Reeves turned to a biological parallel, the human immune system. He identified six characteristics that make the immune system both long-lived and effective:

  • Redundancy
  • Diversity
  • Modularity
  • Adaptation
  • Prudence
  • Embeddedness

Reeves has identified these same characteristics in long-lived social structures like the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.

We saw many of these same characteristics in sustainable organizations that are governing the commons. Those organizations were managing fisheries and forests and irrigation systems for hundreds of years.

Longevity Versus Efficiency

Many businesses today would reject these characteristics, especially redundancy and diversity, as being inefficient. They’re probably right. These characteristics don’t fit with the mechanistic systems thinking that we currently apply to the organization. But increased efficiency may not be the path to longevity.

To achieve longevity, we have to think differently.  A machine approach works well for simple challenges in stable environments. But to conquer the dynamic and unpredictable course of a century or more, as the human immune system does, we have to master the art of biological thinking: resilience, adaptation, evolution.

Businesses Can Die. Governments Shouldn’t.

It’s okay for businesses to die. That’s what bankruptcy law is for. Indeed, Reeves points out that there’s now a one-third chance of your company ceasing to exist in the next five years. About half of the current FORTUNE 500 companies will disappear from the index in the coming decade, through decline, bankruptcy, or acquisition.

It’s not okay for governments to die (although anarchists might disagree). Government has a monopoly on providing social goods. That’s a primary reason why government exists, and social goods are central to the continuation of our social species. This is why there’s such a panic when cities run out of money and why “failed states” are a threat to the international community.

Citizens and politicians who complain about government being wasteful or inefficient may be right in particular instances. But they are missing the larger point that private-sector efficiency doesn’t lead to the sustainable organizations that we expect in the public sector.

A primary focus on longevity, and organic mindset behind it, is yet another way that government is different than business.

(Image courtesy of WikiMedia)

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