I have been to a lot of conferences that had many sessions on ways to assure program sustainability. There is also a lot of really good research literature on this topic. Also, sustainability is a topic that has been front and center in my own work of late.

Analyses and explanations of sustainability inevitably end up with some fairly elaborate discussions about what factors lead to sustainability, how the program is embedded in its context, and so on. I have no doubt that all these treatments of sustainability have a great deal of merit. I take them seriously in my own work. I think everyone should. That said, I have been toying with another, much simpler approach.

Almost every program I have ever evaluated had only one major outcome that it was after. Sure there are cascading outcomes from proximate to distal. (Outcome to waves of impact, if you like that phrasing better.) And of course many programs have many outcomes at all ranks. But in general the proximate outcomes, even if they are many, tend to be highly correlated. So in essence, there is only one.

What this means is that when a program is dropped into a complex system, that program is designed to move the entire system in the direction of attaining that one outcome. We know how systems work. If enough effort is put in, they can in fact be made to optimize a single objective. But we also know that success like that makes the system as a whole dysfunctional in terms of its ability to adapt to environmental change, meet the needs of multiple stakeholders, maintain effective and efficient internal operations, and so on. As I see it, that means that any effort to optimize one outcome will be inherently unstable. No need to look at the details.

My notion is that in order to increase the probability of sustainability, a program should pursue multiple outcomes that are as uncorrelated as possible. The goal should be joint optimization, at the expense of sub-optimizing any of the desired outcomes.

I understand the problems in following my idea. The greater the number of uncorrelated outcomes, the greater the need to coordinate across boundaries, and as I have argued elsewhere in this blog, that is exceedingly difficult. (Why do Policy and Program Planners Assume-away Complexity?)  Also, I am by no means advocating ignoring all that work that has been done on sustainability. Ignoring it is guaranteed to lead to trouble.

Even so, I think the idea I’m proposing has some merit. Look at the outcomes being pursued, and give some thought to how highly correlated they are. What we know about systems tells us that optimization of one outcome may succeed in the short term, but it will not succeed in the long term. Joint optimization of uncorrelated outcomes? That gives us a better fighting chance.



4 thoughts on “A simple recipe for improving the odds of sustainability: A systems perspective

  1. Dear Jonny. I like the definition of sustainability by Holling. In connection, he also defines ‘development’ as a whole and consequently ‘sustainable development’: ‘Sustainability is the capacity to create, test, and maintain adaptive capability. Development is the process
    of creating, testing, and maintaining opportunity. The phrase that combines the two, “sustainable development,” thus refers to the goal of fostering adaptive capabilities and creating opportunities.’
    This definition is very much in line with systemic thinking and that we don’t want to promote a specific solution to a problem but open up new options. We also don’t want this particular solution to sustain but create adaptive capability.

    Holling, Crawford S. 2001. Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological, and social systems. Ecosystems 4: 390-405.

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