Three dilemmas for sustainable Innovation

I recently met with an old colleague who enquired about my fledging sustainable innovation consulting business. "How" he asked "do you get companies to do more transformative innovation rather than simply giving clients the easy innovation option?" It's a great question and I'll return to my answer in a while.

Three dilemmas for sustainable Innovation

Sustainable business is littered with dilemma’s like this: compete or collaborate to advance change, back sustainability start-ups and entrepreneurs vs big business, nudge customers with green tech or with behaviour change campaigns, develop strategy based on spiralling growth or acknowledge limits?

There are similar dilemmas in sustainable innovation too, through these are not debated so widely or publicly. This blog covers the three most commonly raised sustainable innovation quandaries I hear, adding my own view along the way.

1) Incremental vs disruptive innovation for sustainability?

In sustainability circles, the incremental vs disruptive debate that my former colleague was asking about, is perhaps the most hotly debated innovation dilemma to date. When innovating for sustainability; do you accept small improvement that nip-and-tuck the odd efficiency gain here-and-there; or do you go all out for a new-to-the-world moon-shot? Here’s my view on this one.

Everyone working in the field knows that sustainability is a disruptive concept; the problems comes in that much innovation is not similarly disruptive in nature. For example, at a past employer Electrolux, we used to map a three-tier hierarchy of innovations as Continuous Improvement, Core and Primary Development, with varying levels of change and complexity and covering 1-7 year development cycles. Just 5% of innovation resources were Primary Design projects, the truly future-focussed, disruptive innovations. This is supported by FMCG research reporting just 0.2% of breakthrough innovations being successfully launched to market in 2015. However much we would like it, disrupting is simply not the norm.

So, here you see the dilemma head-on; sustainability needs disruption, but most innovation today is aimed at defending or sustaining current business. As a result (and I realise I’m at risk of committing sustainability sacrilege here, with accusations of advocating ‘creeping incrementalism’), I simply don’t think all sustainable innovation projects can or should target disruption. That’s not dismissing disruption outright, just recommending that we pick our innovation battle-grounds carefully. Like good sustainability strategy, sustainable innovation ‘starts from where you are’.

There is a middle ground here which can work for business and planet – which was my answer to the earlier question, plus what I advocate to clients. That is to build a ‘pipeline’ of sustainable innovations. A pipeline features a range of short, mid and long-term innovations that work across the incremental and disruptive spectrum, so you don’t have all your innovation-eggs in one basket. Great innovators like Apple work on current and future products simultaneously, reportedly knowing what they will be launching for the next seven years. One without the other would be short-termist or over-ambitiously naive.

Like most polarities, the incremental or disruptive innovation dilemma does not need to be an either-or question; you can develop a sustainable innovation pipeline to ensure you can survive and thrive in todays and tomorrows world.

2) Pilot with a standalone or integrated sustainable innovation project?

I work with many people tasked to kick-start sustainable innovation in their business and a first dilemma is often where to practically get started on this mountainous journey. One of the first hurdles is how and where to run a first test project; should you kick-off a stand-alone, sustainability-led project i.e. keep the issues separate from normal innovation; or do you integrate sustainability into an existing, currently running project/work stream i.e. integrate it into the mainstream? Perceived wisdom would say integrated every time, for the obvious reasons that i) you want sustainability to be business-as-usual and ii) most innovators are busy and struggle to take on new ways of working. Here’s my view on this one.

A couple of years back I worked on the stand-alone and the integrated approaches with two parallel client projects. In the first we ran sustainability-led a pilot with a UK retailer to develop a sustainability toolkit for their innovators (the stand-alone approach), whilst along side this I participated in a project with a large booze business looking to develop its future innovation pipeline, in which sustainability was one of several innovation themes (integrated approach). The stand-alone retailer project saw us conduct three pilot projects, develop the sustainable design tools, then go-on to run thirteen more projects which validated a toolkit that they continue to use on all new products today. In the booze innovation project, we input sustainability opportunities to a creative process as one part of a wider mix of innovation drivers, which subsequently got lost amongst the clamour of more immediate use benefits, quick-wins and short-term innovations.

This highlights the wider dilemma here; you don’t want a separate sustainable innovation work stream in the long-term – as this makes sustainability look different. Yet integrating sustainability too early risks failure because the organisation is simply not ‘ready-to-receive’ – which was the case with my alcohol client. As a result, sustainability can get side-lined or dropped off the innovation radar. My mantra is ‘separate to integrate’, which means hiving-off sustainable innovation to get things started, build capacity and confidence. Over the long-term goal you can then fully integrate sustainability into all current and future innovation projects.

3) How to create a culture of sustainable innovation?

Another friend recently took up a fascinating sustainable innovation position in which his first objective was to ‘create a culture of creativity and innovation around sustainability’ for his employer – my third sustainable innovation dilemma. Conjuring up images of bean-bags and post-it notes, and shoeless, beard-wearing millennials drinking flat-whites; everyone wants an innovative culture – why wouldn’t they? Its an understandable sustainability objective too, as we all need to get more creative on these issues, both personally and collectively. His first task however was convincing his new boss to drop this goal and surprisingly I think he was spot on. I believe that pursuing an innovative culture in its own right is a red herring in my view; there are much better ways to change innovators hearts, minds and behaviours.

I created endless new business presentations, an internal green champion team, several points-of-view or clever angles on sustainability in my last consulting job; but nothing worked quite like landing a real piece of sustainable design work with a client. Suddenly sustainability made sense to our innovators and they could relate it to their everyday work.

So rather than pursuing creativity as a goal in its own right, I think there’s really no substitute for practically innovating to bring sustainable innovation to life. Many people start with the methods and/or the process of sustainable innovation, all of which is essential to making it systematic, but I worry this resigns sustainable innovation simply to become a management or business process. It’s the excitement of generating ideas, solving a complex problems or creating something completely new that fires-up innovators. Its thrilling to work on projects with a social cause or higher purpose, stretching your impacts beyond purely commercial goals.

Sustainable innovation is a ‘doing sport’ and the best way of kick-starting an innovative culture on sustainability is to just do it. So there you have it, the three main sustainable innovation dilemmas I’ve come across over the years, plus what I do about them. I hope this may help if and when you come across similar dilemmas and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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