Three Rules of Success for Sustainable Change

The world is at war.

And I’m not talking about the terrible war in Syria or the recent terrorist attacks. I’m talking about the war against the root causes that are real drivers and amplifiers of the aggression we see nowadays. It is a war against depletion, scarcity, degradation, poverty and exclusion and for health, wellbeing, biodiversity, prosperity and inclusion. It is the most important war we, as influencers in public and private organizations, can fight at this moment, and since we are our own worst enemy in this case, we need to stand united in tackling this complex issue. 

For a few months now the targets and goals in this war have had a new naTheGlobalGoals_Logo_and_Icons[1]me: the Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs for short.  As the name suggests SDGs are global goals that world leaders, through the United Nations, have agreed to reach in the areas of sustainability and development. The list of seventeen goals, including ending hunger, ending poverty and education for all, are not new. In fact you could say that they are old news at best. They are the sequel to an earlier list, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). And despite the hundreds of billions of dollars we have invested in these goals we have only been able to achieve half of them.


Is it important that we have a list with global goals? Absolutely – the SDGs, and the MDGs before them, are important concepts as they allow the whole of society to rally behind the same concrete and targeted approaches to global issues.

But why didn’t we achieve the first full list of goals? The answer to that question is more complex. The MDGs were from a time of fighting poverty with traditional development aid; they were focused on “rich countries helping poor countries”, not on collaborative effort and certainly not on using market forces.

We know by now that when attempting to tackle complex global problems, there are three interrelated key rules for success. These three rules are:

  1. Align objectives and ways of measuring. We all need to pull in the same direction if we want to solve these issues. Fragmentation of agendas and objectives equals unnecessary loss of resources, momentum and the drive and ability to learn and improve.
  2. Think and act systemically, holistically and strive for scale. Complex problems like child labour, climate change, deforestation and malnutrition cannot be solved by simple projects like building schools, placing solar panels, planting trees or dumping bags of rice in starving communities. They are all too focused on short term “measurable impact”, can never scale up, and do not tackle the root cause. We’ve tried with hundreds of billions of dollars. It doesn’t work. I wish the world was that simple.
  3. Create incentives that reward sustainable behaviour: We need to be honest here. The fact that there is child labour, climate change and deforestation means that somebody, somewhere is better off from it. As long as you are winning by doing the wrong thing, we are playing by the wrong rules. We need to change the rules of this system and need to start rewarding people for doing the right thing.  


These three rules are quite intuitive. However, in reality our actions are quite the opposite—as should be clear from our poor track record in tackling global problems.

Take SDG2 for eTGG_Icon_Color_02xample – “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.” This SDG is very close to my heart and my day-to-day business, and in my view, it is the precondition to many other related global problems; be it poverty, health, inclusive and sustainable growth, sustainable consumption and production, climate change, or protecting life on land and in the sea. In short, if we solve this SDG we take on the root causes of many related issues.

This SDG is a common objective, so we have ticked rule number one. However, our strategy in tackling this issue concerns in most cases completely fragmented and short-term projects. Donors want to feel like their investments have an impact and demand Social Return on Investment. This leads to NGOs competing fiercely and trying to differentiate themselves as being very good in ticking the required boxes, such as number of farmers “trained” and women “empowered”, with little regard for underlying complexities. We are therefore clearly not acting on rule number 2 – acting systemically and holistically, and 3 – changing the incentives that affect behaviour.

In order to make agriculture truly sustainable on a systemic level, we have to take into account the three rules mentioned above; ultimately leading to what we refer to as market transformation. This has already been proven to be successful, for example in the cocoa and coffee sector. In cocoa, the industry convened around the common vision of CocoaAction, aligned objectives and measurements, was built to scale up, and provided incentives for the right behaviour. In the coffee sector, the 4C Association’s key success factor was its ability to provide a fit-for-purpose and inclusive platform for the sector; developing shared and actionable objectives, leading to a critical mass of stakeholders required for sector transformation, and structural, sector-wide implementation of interventions required to make the production side more sustainable.

In the transition from the MDGs to the SDGs, the importance of aligned objectives and shared responsibilities has been recognized. And with the current efforts to align on ways of measuring progress, the SDGs are close to meeting the first rule for success. This is a great first step. But we have to make sure that all initiatives meet the other two rules for success as well, if we want to have a chance of winning this war.

And time is running out.

Lucas Simons is founder and CEO NewForesight and SCOPEinsight. NewForesight ( is a strategic consultancy that tackles the sustainability challenges of our time, through projects that drive large-scale systemic change in agricultural markets. SCOPEinsight ( is an independent rating agency that assesses the business potential of farmer organizations in agriculture, dairy, forestry and aquaculture in developing countries.

Lucas has been awarded the title of ‘Young Global Leader’ by the World Economic Forum and is an Ashoka Fellow. He has combined his ideas and strategies for sustainable market transformation of the food supply in his book ‘Changing the Food Game’, available on and via Greenleaf Publishing.

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