Effectuation on the subject of sustainability

Guest contribution by | 13.06.2022

Does the thinking and decision-making logic of effectuation, which is based on scientific research into the behaviour of successful multiple founders, also have answers to the issue of sustainability and the challenges posed by the climate crisis? This is a question that has preoccupied my fellow campaigners and me for some time.

Effectuation does not provide concrete, immediate answers, but it does offer an attitude and behavioural patterns that make it easier to take action in the face of complex challenges. It offers a way of moving from powerlessness to action. Psychologists like to call this the shift from situation orientation to action orientation. In situation orientation, a person’s thoughts revolve around the current situation instead of looking at possible solutions. In contrast, people with an action orientation are capable of action and focus their attention on tackling essential tasks. This urgently needed shift, especially when it comes to sustainability, is sharpened, among other things, by the usual focus in effectuation on the resources available at the moment.

Using available resources

If we take a look at the history of the development of Fridays for Future and Greta Thunberg in particular, we can say in retrospect: this was an effectuation. The schoolgirl from Sweden is the face of the Fridays for Future movement and has been concerned with climate change since her childhood. She has made it her goal to draw attention to climate change. With her sign saying “School strike for the climate”, she sat down in front of the Swedish parliament instead of going to school. There, she went on strike every day at first, then every Friday.

Instead of adopting an attitude characterised by a lack of influence on the issue of the climate crisis, Greta Thunberg used the means available to her and took action: she gave up school, set her priority on climate activism and began to use her time to make a statement. Great’s example shows that even one voice can have a lot of influence and also win others over to an issue and encourage them to act.

The principles of effectuation

In 2001, Professor Saras D. Sarasvathy derived four principles and an overarching meta-principle as the central result of her research work with successful multi-growers. These principles are also explained in the t2informatik blog post by Heiko Bartlog The Principle of Effectuation. To clarify this briefly:

  1. In principle, effectuation is oriented towards the currently available means (as seen in the example with Greta Thunberg), from which goals are only developed in the following.
  2. Since we are aware that not everything can be controlled, coincidences are seen as opportunities from which a benefit can be drawn.
  3. Furthermore, action is taken in such a way that only a tolerable potential loss is accepted.
  4. Partnerships offer a good opportunity to increase the funds available and reduce the potential losses.

What do these principles mean in conjunction with sustainability? The meta-principle “the future can be shaped” is per se an antagonist to powerlessness and the basic attitude “there’s no point / it doesn’t matter anyway”. On the one hand, this is linked to the focus on the individual’s impulse to act applied in effectuation, and on the other hand, it is linked to the basic idea of sending out many small speedboats instead of one big tanker that is supposed to solve the entire problem and issue. The idea of empowering the individual and looking at what encourages is very much hidden here. At the same time, this also means saying goodbye to the idea of proving that one’s own plan is the best, the only true and right solution. Instead, it is about meaningful next steps with a view and focus on the means available at the moment. This makes it possible to move from powerlessness to willingness and from willingness to doing.

Return on good luck, cooperation and sustainability

The principle of “return on good luck” is particularly promising in terms of sustainability. Random inventions have often accelerated our progress, be it the invention of penicillin or the microwave oven. Recently, a promising solution to our high demand and consumption of energy was found, reported on Freethink¹: The current lithium-ion batteries are polluting, large, heavy and do not last long. Lithium-sulphur batteries are an alternative, but their number of charges is even more limited. In the search for an option to increase the number of charges, an incredible accidental discovery occurred: a way to stop the decay of the battery, making it much more durable. This would open up a multitude of possible uses, such as in aeroplanes and passenger ships. This lucky, accidental find thus offers a huge opportunity for a more environmentally friendly future.

Furthermore, it should be mentioned at this point that the principle of cooperation, i.e. looking at partnerships, is also particularly suitable for the topic of sustainability, as this is a cross-cutting issue. Challenges around sustainability are highly complex, so attitudes are needed that support networking and trial and error. Partnerships make it possible to develop further means and ideas as well as to jointly reduce uncertainty. Thus, “partnerships to achieve goals” are also listed in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).²

Sustainable speedboats

One example of the application of effectuation to the topic of sustainability was a digital marketplace of makers, in which 24 speedboats on the topic of sustainability were created in 2020 with a good 30 participants.

This gave rise to ideas such as a sustainability workshop or thoughts on sustainably produced fashion. The use and skilful combination of existing resources as well as cooperation at eye level was also the inspiration behind the Citizens Forests³ association run by our colleague Carsten Holtmann, which has planted 15,000 trees to date. Citizens Forest e.V., whose vision describes reforestation against climate change, was founded in Bönningstedt in 2019. Reforestation in particular makes an important contribution to sustainability, as carbon dioxide can be reduced and biodiversity is maintained through the new habitat. The association offers free support to the network partners, with the idea that the citizens themselves show initiative for reforestation and reforest on their own. Instead of waiting for political measures to be established, Citizens Forest encourages people to work together and fight climate change.

Notes in conclusion

In conclusion, it is important to note that especially with such serious and threatening issues as sustainability and the climate crisis, every opportunity and option should be seized and every possible action, even if small, should be taken. The important thing is to tackle the challenges and take action together. And in doing so, it is essential to actively look at the principle of ” return on good luck”, i.e. to use chance as an opportunity.


Notes (partly in German):

If you are interested in more information from Rainer Oberkötter, we would like to recommend the German Infotheke on his website. Definitely worth a visit!

[1] Freethink: An accidental discovery could change the world
[2] 17 UN-Nachhaltigkeitsziele
[3] Citizens Forests e.V.

Rainer Oberkoetter

Rainer Oberkoetter

Rainer Oberkötter has been working as an organisational developer for a good 20 years. With the consulting firm Wolf&Oberkötter Personal- und Organisationsentwicklung and the Institut für Wirksamkeitsanalyse, he covers a wide range of activities from coaching and process consulting to evaluation. He has been an Effectuation Expert since 2018.