Sustainability is like football: a 5-step game plan to help you win

Our world is a complex system. We are a complex system: a complex species, interacting with each other and our complex environment. For all this to work well, in a balanced and sustainable way, we need to be able to plan in complex systems. So here is a simple but powerful approach to not get lost in all this complexity. 5 levels: success, system, strategy, action and tool.

We are working in a system (the planet earth), where the ‘rules of the game’ are the natural cycles that maintain our environment in a state which supports a healthy human society. Check out our video on this if you like. Like in football, we have to respect the rules of the games to have a chance to win.

It’s important to have a definition of what success means. In football, it is scoring more goals than the opponent. To be successful in our planet Earth system, is being able to prosper on the planet both now and in the future. And to do that, we need to respect the four system conditions for sustainability and we can use them to guide us along the way. You can watch the video on this if you have not yet.

To achieve success in our system, we need to use strategies in order to close the gap between where we are today and where we want to be in the future. In football, this is about organizing players on the field, focussing on offense or defense in order to increase our chances to score goals. Backcasting is a strategy for sustainability and you can check out our video to learn more about it.

Actions are usually part of a strategy chosen to achieve success. They are initiatives carefully prioritized in order to lead us to success. In football, it is dribbling, passing the ball, shooting to the goal. Not all actions achieve success right away but they consistently work toward it.

Tools are selected to help us understand where we are and make our actions and strategies more effective. In football, it involves gear, practicing, watching videos of the opponent to better understand their strengths and weaknesses. On our sustainability journey, we use concepts and metrics to help us choose the best actions and strategies in order to achieve success in our system.

When it comes to being more sustainable, most of us have a tendency to focus on actions. Weather it is personally or in an organization we want to put initiatives together right away. It is in our human nature to solve problems. Working with businesses and municipalities, I have found that this 5-level model can help ask the right question and make better decisions. If all the players were running on the football field without a collective strategy and not knowing that they should score goals, they would not win very often. In order to become sustainable as a society, we need to know the rules of the game on planet Earth, we need to make sure that we work together strategically, that we choose the tools and actions that are right for us to achieve success in our system. Recycling in the office or switching to hybrid vehicles in the company’s fleet might be the best choice for one business but not for another. Don’t get me wrong, they are good initiatives, but the time and resources spent on them could have been better spent elsewhere. I have found these 5 levels very useful to take some perspective and have a structure when analyzing an organization, writing a report, answering questions and helping people stay away from picking random actions from lists of best practices so they can more effective with the resources available to make progress on their sustainability journey.

We’d like to thank The Natural Step Canada for sponsoring this video. The Natural Step Canada is a respected sustainability leader that provides high quality learning opportunities to individuals, advisory services to organizations, and also fosters collaboration by convening stakeholders within Sustainability Transition Labs. Find out more at

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