The Secret Sauce to Innovate for Sustainability

Conjuring up images of lone inventors tinkering with new kit in their sheds, or creatives doing a 'late-one' after a day stretched out on the bean-bag, innovation is one of those zeitgeist words that excites and irritates in equal measure. Many of these metaphors make innovation sound like some sort of secret recipe, a black-box only accessible by a few half-crazed or eccentric individuals.

The Secret Sauce to Innovate for Sustainability

Yet I think this is a misconception, believing that innovation can be conducted and managed systematically, is replicable and can be taught and improved. I unpacked the practicalities of applying innovation to sustainability in August’s Edie Innovation Masterclass and then answered participant questions in my previous posting. This blog revisits the masterclass content by introducing the main ingredients in my own sustainable innovation ‘secret sauce’, as a way to help you when innovating for sustainability.

Stick with the problem

Understandably innovators want to get to the idea fast, yet perhaps the biggest mistake in innovation is to jump straight from problem-to-solution. “Your first idea is almost always wrong,” Scott Anthony writes in The Little Black Book of Innovation. “And you can’t figure out precisely how it is wrong through analysis alone. You have to, you know, actually do something.” Your first idea can be prejudiced, preconceived and only of interest to a market of one – you. The ‘something’ you ‘have to do’ is to use a formal innovation process, which I will turn to next.

Follow a structured process

Good innovation thrives on structure and constraints; rather than being open-ended, completely free or boundary-less. My own process uses four-steps: Explore, Define, Create, Develop. Explore is a research phase to open up possibilities. Define is where you clarify the problem and opportunity by focussing on a few big areas. Create is the idea generation and selection phase in which you create multiple options to solve your problem. Develop is where you prototype and refine your winning concept. This takes clients on a journey from an initial problem to a winning new idea and solution.

Go round in circles

This type of early stage innovation is often called the ‘fuzzy front-end’ and for good reason. It can be non-linear, messy and uncertain, with periods in which you will need to iterate your problem-solution. Your research (Explore & Define phase) may clarify and change your initial problem as you move back-and-forth. I ran an innovation project last year which started with a packaging waste problem and ended with a product solution, so get used to the idea of going round in circles.

Invest in the front-end

A great conceptual model for innovation is the ‘double diamond’. This starts with a generic problem or challenge, moving through a first ‘diamond’ phases of divergence (Explore) and convergence (Define), to reach a specific question. Now you have sufficient clarity on your project (the brief) you can then move-on through the second more conventional ‘diamond’ – the idea generation phase – in which you create multiple options for your problem (divergence) eventually going on to develop a final solution to the problem (convergence).

Successful innovation is fuelled by strong investment in the front-end (the first diamond); as good research, clarity on the brief, and unique insights are the key to great ideas. Clients often hate paying for this and innovators frequently miss it out entirely, at their peril. My general rule of thumb is that about a third of the budget should go on the first diamond.

Good ideas can come from anywhere

Continuing the research theme, many innovators use a single, lead method to spark ideas – like behavioural research, data analysis or future trends – I believe good ideas can come from anywhere. You need the proverbial 360o view on your challenge and to do this I use a comprehensive ‘Explore’ toolkit which features several different ways to research your problem, creating great stimulus for the project. This toolkit features: i) Data-mining to look at what the client already has, ii) Technical Forensics to explore manufacturing or financial constraints, iii) Technology Scouting defines new technical opportunities, iv) Trends & Futures seeks emerging socio-cultural developments in the market, v) Competitor Mapping helps you know what already exists, and vi) Customer Research shows you how and why people really use things. I recommend using at least two of these research tools to unearth rich and deep stimulus so crucial to success.

Early stage sustainability

The special ingredient to sustainable innovation is to plug environmental and social factors in from the get-go and ensure it is prioritised throughout. 80% of the environmental impacts of todays products and services are determined at the very early design stages, but clients continue to implement sustainability later-on, when all the important decisions are made, which is simply too late. Early stage sustainability works in two key ways: i) when sustainability is the challenge – where the problem is about waste, ethics, equity, pollution, etc, or ii) with sustainability in the challenge – in which eco and social factors are used as early stages drivers or research to inspire ideas.

Ideate with experts

Everyone knows about the benefits of multi-disciplinary teams to generate better ideas. I often bring-in outside sustainability experts, with deep know-how in an area (academic) or with an extreme view on the issues (an NGO) to help raise-the-bar during the Create phase. Clients often lack the necessary knowledge or ambition on sustainability, so it helps to have ideation ‘high rollers’ present to set the idea generation bar high.

These are some important ingredients to my sustainable innovation special sauce. On top of these you will still need all the other, normal success criteria: like a laser-focus on customer benefits, sufficient financial backing at key stages, the right technical skills at the right time, tenacity and resilience, and a little bit of luck. Spontaneity and improvisation can be important to creative cookery but sometimes there’s nothing like a tried-and-tested recipe to help you cook-up great innovation.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie