What Is Organizational Sustainability in Practice?

Reflections after a semester’s worth of inquiry into the theory and practice of organizational sustainability via the methodology of action research.

Sustainability, or the practice of continuously searching for equilibrium—in an organization, in an ecosystem, or in one’s own life—is better facilitated through some methodologies than others. Dealing with the nature of reality requires us to let go of certain theories of change management: those based on concepts that do not mesh with the complexity of real-life situations. This note is especially relevant to social change organizations attempting to work with the entirety of complex situations rather than simply produce some type of product. There is a fundamental difference between working with social systems and producing a product, which suggests why many theories of management and planning from the private sector do not work well when applied to social change efforts, whether undertaken by small, local coalitions or international non-governmental organizations.

The methodologies of the private sector are not meant to garner social change or succeed in a world where there is no predictability and no one has control. Complex problems and social systems, like racism or environmental degradation, have no real boundaries. In working with them, simple linear causality does not exist, unintended consequences are common, the entire picture is too complex for any one person to grasp, and individuals are by no means a passive cog in the system but tend to act according to their own wants and needs (Mowles, 2010).

Working with social systems requires working effectively with others, so sustainability comes about through not only investigating and understanding the system but also through cooperation, negotiation, and by extension, politics (Mowles, 2010). Mowles (2010) writes:

In modern societies we exist amid very long chains of interdependent people, which make it very difficult, for individuals, or even groups of individuals to bring about long term, enduring change, which emerges rather as a result of the unintended, unplanned consequences of the tissues of interweaving intentions. (p. 155)

In other words, not only is reality in a constant state of flux but in pursuing social change, activists must work with others to adapt to this complexity. The path forward is a constant, complex negotiation between a multitude of conflicting wants and needs of individuals and groups.

Organizations and individuals need methods of working with themselves and others to form a consensus about what is real, what sustainability means, and what the best path forward is in any given situation. Some consensus, or adequate “commitment throughout the organization” (Rogers, 2012, p. 30) is necessary for people to work together towards sustainability. Wals and Schwarzin (2012) describe “dialogic interaction” as “reflexive conversation and engagement among a heterogeneous group of people, who attempt to explore a diversity of potentially incompatible perspectives in a mutually respectful, trusting and collaborative way” (p. 16) as one way to become a learning community and deal effectively with change. Dialogic interaction with others includes empathetic listening, suspension of judgement, avoiding interrupting others, thinking before speaking, slowing down, honestly expressing one’s true opinions, and being willing to experience the dissonance of conflicting ideas such that the members of the group can eventually adopt new, more appropriate ways of thinking that take into account others’ perspectives (Wals & Schwarzin, 2012). Self-reflection or reflexivity is key to this process as well, as is the desire to respect others. So to is an understanding of one’s own and others’ identities and values, which in turn inform our individual actions (Rogers, 2012).

Leadership takes on highly collaborative dimensions in the areas of social change management and organizational sustainability. Rogers (2012) describes the need for a leader to create a story to guide change but says that consensus surrounding this story is necessary. Achieving consensus implies a dialogic process such as that previously described, that brings together many people’s opposing viewpoints and negotiates between them. Mowles (2010) acknowledges that management practices attempting to improve people’s quality of life “must rely on the potential for being constantly destabilised by the desires, ambitions and changing interests of those it seeks to support” (Mowles, 2010, p. 156). Organizational leaders must negotiate change on all fronts, both amidst the people with whom they work and those for whom they work.

For leaders in processes of social change, theories such as Reeler’s (2007) distinction between emergent, transformative and projectable change try to accurately reflect the nature of reality in social change efforts. But as Reeler himself points out, theory cannot be allowed to blind oneself to reality, which must be approached directly through empirical research and critical inquiry (Mowles, 2010). Theories help, but they do not replace the long and difficult process of making meaning of complex situations and negotiating a consensus with others to chart a path forward, together.

Three individuals join together in working towards social change in the picture above. Thanks to dialogic interaction, they work through their differences, share and debate their ideas and open to new understandings. Together, they follow a shared sustainability inquiry into a situation that is struggling to be sustainable, perhaps following a process like that listed on the left.

Originally written on May 20, 2017 for a graduate course on organizational sustainability.


Mowles, C. (2010). Post-foundational development management—power, politics and complexity. Public Administration and Development, 30, 149-158. DOI: 10.1002/pad.563

Reeler, D. (2007). A three-fold theory of social change and implications for practice, planning, monitoring and evaluation. Cape Town, South Africa: Centre for Developmental Practice (CDRA). 

Rogers, K. (2012). Exploring our ecological selves within learning organizations. The Learning Organization, 19(1), 28-37.

Wals, A. & Schwarzin, L. (2012). Fostering organizational sustainability through dialogic interaction.The Learning Organization, 19(1), 11-27.