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The Problem with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Why they lack rigorous strategic thinking but can still be rescued.
You are someone who is aware of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) announced in 2015 by the United Nations. Their value is not in question - they are objectives the entire world hopes to realize.
But recently, Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared that the SDGs are on the path to failure.
Launching a special edition of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) progress report, he warned that their collective promise made in 2015 of a more green, just and equitable global future, is in peril.
“Unless we act now, the 2030 Agenda will become an epitaph for a world that might have been,” he said.
Like others, he offered a number of prescriptions. However, they aren’t likely to move the needle on disappointment looming on December 31st, 2030, the date on which they are supposed to be achieved.
Those of us who know about long-term strategic planning are horrified by the lack of progress, similar to everyone else. But for us, there’s more. This failure was inevitable due to fatal design flaws. By violating the fundamental principles of our narrow discipline, the UN cannot avoid the unfortunate situation it finds itself in.
Despite the tireless work by thousands of well-meaning people, a slow-moving disaster is taking place in real time.
However, with six years to go between 2023 and 2030, there is a vanishing opportunity to declare victory at the end of the decade. How? Continue reading to understand why a “hard reset” could save the world from disillusionment.
Why the Urgency?
As I mentioned, Guterres has been quite clear that the targets will be missed if something isn’t done. At this rate, we can expect that in January 2031, some will publicly declare the effort a failure. Others will ignore the project altogether and hope people forget. A few will try to gaslight us to believe that failed goals were actually hit.
However, I have a bigger fear.
I’m afraid that the world will take away the wrong lesson about planning itself, such as a conclusion that Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) don’t work. Or that nations joining together is a waste of time. Or that long-term thinking is a mistake.
My nightmare is that we’ll use arguments like this to empower incremental thinking. Short-termism. And political partisanship. These could fuel a rise of divisive, uncooperative behavior between countries.
Fortunately, there’s actually a lot which can be done between now and 2030 to prevent the worst from happening. Obviously, the quicker we start doing them, the better. But there is time to make the difference Guterres and the rest of the world wants to witness.
Where should solutions come from? For those of us who are long-term strategic planners, they are plain to see. Our clients fall into identical traps routinely when they do their planning. The UN is no exception.
To discover them, let’s start by taking a closer look at the way the SDG Goals were originally set up. The approach used offers the first clues about the actions needed to turn the tide on our fortunes.
Maybe as we examine alternatives, we could even see a path for each country to succeed as well. As someone who wants the world to succeed in this effort, you may agree that this aspiration is also worth exploring.
You Can’t Be Everything When You Grow Up
Adults smile at children who say they want to grow up to become “a Doctor, a Fireman, a Police Chief and an Architect.” There’s something cute about their over-the-top aspirations. We wish for them to think big, after all. Plus, it reminds each of us of more unspoiled, hopeful days.
Maybe God also smiled when the 17 SDGs were announced in 2015.
Why? Well, on the plus side, they were individually “SMART” - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Based. Also, each of them is undoubtedly important. Their value to the planet is beyond debate.
Finally, just like any other organization which attempts to create a long-term strategy, the first step was a wise one. That is, making an inspired list of SMART SDGs is a strong move towards carving out a workable strategic plan. In other words, it must be taken for effective implementation to occur.
However, once such goals are assembled, a problem occurs. Much in the way that a child over-commits, organizations do the same. Like them, the world has made the mistake of treating this first step as if it were the most important, final one.
Some may object to this analogy, arguing that “the world” is not an individual. Or a child. Unfortunately, in long-term strategic planning, the propensity for a ten-year-old to be optimistic is similar to that of an organization’s. They make the same mistakes.
We planners see it in every retreat. When given the opportunity to dream big over a 15–30-year horizon, few teams short-change this exciting opportunity. As practitioners of long-term planning know, we must therefore work against a real-time version of the “planning fallacy” defined by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Perversely, the more well intentioned the team, the worse the tendency to be over-optimistic.
Regrettably, the world’s nations appear to have made the identical error in forging the SDGs.
Fact: the 17 SDGs replaced the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The latter were developed in 2000 and intended for completion by 2015. Unfortunately, by best estimates, they were only 20-25% achieved.
In many organizations, such a low failure rate would have been followed by a major rethink. “Why wasn’t more achieved?”
But how did the world respond to the MDG shortfall? By almost doubling the number of goals from eight to 17, all to be accomplished in the subsequent 15-year span from 2015 to 2030.
However, this was not due to malice. Nor was it reckless. More likely than not, the world remains inspired to set and accomplish big goals by the victory over smallpox. The program to eradicate the disease was successful between 1959 to 1980. However, the road was not smooth. Between 1959 and 1966 there were few results to show. In response, a “hard reset” in the form of an “Intensified Eradication Program” was undertaken in 1967.
Given the world’s track record at setting and accomplishing BHAGs, was the 2015 jump from eight MDGs to 17 SDGs warranted?
Based on the experience of long-term strategic planning in organizations, the answer is “No”. But are the combined world’s governments so large that they are immune? Are they “too big to fail?”
Does the world have the capacity to accomplish multiple complex objectives at the same time?
Well, insiders to long-term strategic planning would probably argue that the larger the organization, the harder it is to accomplish overarching BHAGs. And furthermore, this difficulty is usually cloaked from public view.
I dare say that the virtual organization comprising some 190+ governments and 7.9 billion citizens is less effective than smaller, more formal organizations. In other words, it has less capacity. Not more.
As such, the UN made a big mistake by treating the SDG goals as if they were important, but final. Why?
This error is one executive teams make all the time. They hand down a list of high-level targets to each department in the organization. Even though they are SMART, they don’t work.
At a high level, the result is culture-wide paralysis. Why? Employees perform their own intuitive analysis of the likelihood of failure, mere moments after the goals are announced. When their silent calculation fails, they move quickly into lip-service, check-the-box routines.
To repeat: this has nothing to do with the sincerity of all involved. Or their willingness. Or their general intelligence.
We shouldn’t doubt the character of the UN and national representatives. However, they can’t escape the limitations of long-term strategic planning in organizations. When too many goals or outcomes are announced, the result is paralysis. Overwhelm.
As such, it’s not hard to see why the SDGs have produced a massive implementation failure. It’s just what happens.
With this reality in mind, how should the world proceed?
A “Total Vision” is Needed
By now it may be obvious that the 17 SDGs, taken altogether, painted an incredible picture. To put it another way, they fashioned a 2030 fantasy that no reputable person thinks is achievable.
Now in 2023, we must take several urgent steps. The first? Craft a “Total Vision” for 2030 that is, for the first time, credible. Perhaps this might be as easy as giving each of the 17 SDGs a “haircut”?
The simple answer is that this isn’t just a matter of rolling back each of the individual commitments. Why?
Well, there’s a big difference between treating each SDG as if it were separate, and crafting a “total vision” in which they are joined. The reason? Only the latter approach can define a logically and emotionally coherent endgame.
One of the big lessons in long-term strategic planning which sets it apart from its short-term cousin is that the definition of the endgame is all important. For a range of reasons, you can’t simply extrapolate from a bunch of goals based on what you are measuring today.
For example, a client team I worked with wanted to grow revenues at a healthy clip, plus an extra 10%. When they did so, they discovered that in 10 years’ time, they would have to move their headquarters to a different, more developed country to keep up with the growth.
At that moment they discovered, to their chagrin, they had a collective but unspoken commitment. The company needed to remain a national treasure. And stay put.
In other words, the extrapolation of revenue conflicted with their emerging total vision. Consequently, they scaled back their ambitions.
In fact, they lacked a key skill. They needed a new capability: to stand in the future, and create from there. While it may sound vague, the result of such an exercise is a coherent destination in which everything works together as one.
By contrast, as I have argued, the 17 SDGs don’t play well together. They cannot co-exist in the same imagined space. In fact, some explain that there are conflicts between them.
But the big reason is that they exceed the world’s capacity to realize them at the same time. Therefore, pushing harder to make them come to pass in their current form will only make things worse.
Instead of doubling down, let’s preempt the inevitable round of 2031 finger-pointing. We have enough time to convert the original 17 SDGs into a realistic total vision.
If you were in a position to join the effort as a participant in a hard reset, here are some steps I would suggest you take.
Treat the 17 SDGs as if they are the product of an initial brainstorm i.e. an exercise in “divergent thinking”. Use subsequent steps to do “convergent” thinking based on the original list as an input.
Work with a cross-sectional, representative group to suggest distinct, but realistic, possible total futures. First, ask for a single proposal, then follow it up with other proposals.
Once several proposals have been made, engage in discussions to converge on a final, single total future.
Expect the final total future to only address a subset of all the original SDGs. You are likely to say a clear “no” to some worthwhile prior SDGs.
However, this initial total future should still be able to inspire several billion people at the same time. It should describe a world that works for everyone. Also, it should be simple for each country to work with, to make tangible progress.
At this moment, it may only exist as written or spoken words. There might be a few numbers included. Our next task is to translate this initial total future into more details in a process which I’ll illustrate using an imaginary example.
Detailing a Measurable Total Vision
Sadly, the initial total vision developed in the prior step might still be flawed. Why?
It’s still too vague to be credible. In our case, it may still include overlaps and conflicts between SDGs. Recall the story of the client with the revenue/headquarters conflict. Such hidden problems sometimes exist in a total vision, but the client needed another step to root them out.
Furthermore, at this point in the process there is an unspoken assumption that the organization / world has infinite resources. The fact is, whether it be money, talent, attention or time, all goals compete for many of the same finite supplies.
To avoid these traps and ensure implementation, the next step requires us to provide more specific details. Essentially, the organization must convert the overall vision into two elements: measurable targets and required initiatives for 2023-2030. For the task at hand, it's preferable that the team who completed the prior step should continue working, so your involvement as a potential participant continues.
Here is an example to illustrate the next step. Let’s imagine if the world were to commit to a 2030 goal of lowering the global homicide rate by 25% from 2023, that might be part of an initial total vision.
To continue advancing, let's include more descriptors to create a Measurable Total Vision. It could define metrics and targets for 2030 such as:
Per capita homicide rates for men ages 18-19, 20-22, 23-29, etc. Target - less than 30 for each cohort.
Total number of female deaths by homicide. Target - fewer than 50,000.
Percentage of homicides due to domestic violence. Target - fewer than 10%.
Percentage of firearm related homicides. Target - fewer than 30%
The initiatives or interventions needed to accomplish these goals might include Localize Programs, Lessen Repressive Policies, Legislate Gun Control, Early Interventions, Femicide Laws, and Historical Learning.
At this point, you would ask the question: “Will these collective initiatives produce the intended results?” If the answer is even a shaky “Yes”, that’s enough to move to the next step.
You now have two lists: one made up of metrics/targets and the other comprised of initiatives.
Backcasting to Create a Credible Plan
These two lists in the Measurable Total Vision are interim steps; the inputs to a difficult task typically undertaken by a small team of less than six people. (Larger teams have proven to be ineffective due to the challenge involved.) Imagining you to be a member of the small team, here is some helpful information you would receive.
The overall method is deceptively simple to explain. Just begin with the two 2030 lists and work backwards, one year at a time. Fill in the metrics as you work back from the targets, and time the initiatives as needed in a corresponding Gantt chart.
For example, here is a single line item from an imaginary chart your small team might produce.
The team begins by filling in 2030 (target) and 2023 (current-day reality) metrics. Then, the numbers are backcast from the future to the current reality as shown below.
Finally, the initiatives required to drive the numbers in the right direction (i.e. down) are added to a corresponding Gantt chart.
Now, a story begins to emerge. Accordingly, your team makes the necessary changes to establish a credible plot. That is, whatever is included in the two initiatives (“Criminalize Femicide Initiative - Intro” and “Strengthen Femicide Laws”) must be enough to drive “Total numbers of female deaths by homicide” from 79,000 to 50,000 by 2030.
Unfortunately, you would discover that this seemingly simple task turns out to be anything but. In practice, a typical team of corporate executives in an average-sized company finds it to be quite a challenge as the full list of metrics and initiatives are added.
As you complete the full chart, bear in mind that there is a real world outside. As such, during the exercise you may frequently change targets, add initiatives and even (in rare cases) alter the target year. The point is that feasibility, and therefore credibility, are all-important.
Hence, the initial choice of members to be on this team is critical. They need to be broad-thinking insiders who understand better than anyone:
where conflicts exist between different objectives.
where resources are limited.
the cause-and-effect relationships between initiatives and their results.
assumptions which must be challenged or embraced.
Let’s take a step back to imagine if the creators of the SDGs had followed a similar process. Instead of ending with the 17 SDGs, there would have been further work to do to bring them to a backcasted, credible plan.
Fortunately, here in 2023, it’s still possible for the UN to follow such a path. It could convert the 17 SDGs into a feasible plan whose implementation could begin immediately.
In addition, the approach could be offered to all the countries of the world so that they too, can craft implementable plans. This could get them out of the box-ticking exercise the SDGs have become in many cases.
Most importantly, it gives them a series of steps which meet two of the high-level objectives of long-term strategic planning: to follow rigorous intellectual and social reasoning at the same time.
Combining Intellectual and Social Outcomes
The argument I have laid out so far is based on the principle that long-term strategic planning is a distinct practice, with its own rules. These rules are highly constrained by the requirements of every successful plan; to accomplish and balance intellectual and social outcomes.
Intellectual outcomes are the result of processes meant to follow a certain line of logical thinking. A strategic plan consists of activities which are sequenced to accomplish specific results, such as those laid out in the detailed plan from the prior section. It’s built on specific knowledge impossible for a single person to grasp - only a team of insiders has the intellectual firepower to pull together a volume of information from multiple perspectives.
At the same time, there is a social outcome to every long-term strategic plan. By definition, it’s made up of the agreements between those who crafted and/or agreed on it. They need to be on the same page so that implementation can occur.
The process I have described combines both outcomes in a single timeline. While the steps outlined are essential to create a credible strategic plan which has a high chance of success, they are not enough. Consider them to be necessary but not sufficient. Along the way to effective implementation, both intellectual and social mindsets are required to deal with more challenges than I have enumerated in this article.
Unfortunately, the process of creating the 17 SDGs in 2015 has inexorably led to a high probability of failure in both dimensions. As I mentioned before, practitioners of long-term strategic planning would say that the poor results to date were predictable.
Fortunately, today’s reality needs not predict more of the same. There is time to intervene before 2030. To implement a hard reset.
However, I don’t mean to understate the politics of the current situation. But I am arguing that biting the bullet now as a planetary species will yield far superior outcomes than any of the other alternatives.
And yes, we are terribly and awfully constrained. Our ambitions are colliding head-on with our ability to execute. On this front, I don’t have good news.
But the happy fact is that we are committed to making the world a measurably better place in 2030. And we all want to declare victory at the turn of the decade.
Collectively, we need to do what organizations do all the time. When they realize their planning process is flawed, they revisit their commitments and refashion them. Taking lessons learned from the first part of the journey, they adjust their plans so they can make progress in the second.
In summary, I trust that this article leaves you hopeful.
Fortunately, in the seven years which remain, there’s time to change the course of history.