“How can I successfully disrupt thinking for sustainable innovation within an organisation?”

A few weeks ago I was asked “How can I successfully disrupt thinking for sustainable innovation within an organisation?”. Here’s my answer:

  • “It’s all about the journey”. The first thing you do is very unlikely to lead to massive pipeline of sustainable innovation. Successfully disrupting is a journey, from the first disruption through several steps to a new normal where sustainable innovation is commonplace. Generally, the steps in the journey are using the permission you have now to run experiments (or, for the more risk-averse, ‘pilots’) that get track record and credibility for more permission, and bigger experiments (‘pilots’).
  • Understand where you’re starting from. You need to diagnoses the status quo, and therefore what the best next step is. Are you in a Leader, where the task is more about embedding and lighting new passion? Perhaps an ambitious Beginner, which can leapfrog through some bold pilots but will also need to put the basics in place (this can be done in parallel). Is there a creative culture, so you can just inspire and point a direction because everyone will get on with it. Or an engineering culture, which will want to know that the answers are possible before they start? The specific next step – the pilots you choose to run, for instance –  depends on where the organisation is at now.
  • Use respected others to make sustainability credible and normal. People believe people like them a lot more than they believe change agents. Can you tell key decision-makers  stories of competitors that are succeeding because of sustainability? Can you introduce them to professional peers who can tell that story. (This is one reason why Forum runs its Network.)
  • Senior sponsorship is usually key. Usually you’ll need a senior sponsor. It doesn’t have to be the CEO, yet. But sustainability tends to end up being strategic, risky and touching many parts of the organisation. It needs a senior executive to overcome the people saying no for tactical and/or risk-averse and/or siloed reasons.
  • Connect to the enduring purpose of the organisation. It’s obvious to say that sustainability is about the long-term. But that’s a difficult guide for action: the rewards are too far away, especially compared to immediate challenges. Better to work through  how sustainability connects to the long-term purpose of the organisation. Why was it founded? What job does it do for its customers? What role does it have in society? At the core of successful companies there usually a purpose about helping people live better lives in some way – after all, for the most part £10 income is a customer saying this good/service makes my life at least £10 better. (And, yes, there are exceptions.) You can ask questions: how can the company deliver on that purpose for a sustainable world?  Connecting like this does a few things. It says sustainability is about making the company more successful, not giving up on business all together. Also, the answers tend to be do-able steps from today into the long-term.
  • Set some ‘pilots’ going. You’re armed with a diagnosis of the status quo, some senior sponsorship, and the first notions of how sustainability connects to the enduring purpose of the organisation. Now you can look for opportunities to start pilots, little experiments that use a bit of resource to do some sustainable innovation. Perhaps you ride on an existing focus group to test some initial concepts. Perhaps you convince HR to let you use one of the graduates trainee groups for a project. Perhaps you’re further forward and can take an entire product category and think through from first principles (“now, what business are we in here, really?”). Ideally you have a portfolio of pilots, so you start to gather an internal network, plus more chance of a clear success. Of course, you’ll make sure that you learn from any ‘failure’ – and look to build credibility for bigger pilots next time.
  • Get some resource set aside for disruptive innovation for sustainability. Classic mistake I’ve seen in many companies. Hold a creative workshop. Get people excited. Then no follow-up to the best ideas. Please, please, please try to get some resource set aside in the budget for unexpected, disruptive opportunities.
  • Create management structures that nurture and protect disruptive ideas. Second classic mistake: put an interesting innovation into the daily grind. Subject it to the same financial hoops as a mature business. Put people with implementation skills only on the team. Then watch it die a death by a thousand cuts. Different or difficult concepts need to be protected from the norm, while still subject to the appropriate discipline – are the team learning and putting those insights into the next iteration? In the report Breakthrough Innovation: your guide to innovating for a brighter future we found  companies used 10 different management structures, from competitions through hot-housing to collaboration and corporate venturing. If you can create a management structure to host sustainable innovation then you’re making good progress.
  • Opportunistically embed in your organisation. In the report  there are something like 20 different ways companies embed innovation into their culture, covering their people (example: training), their processes (example: add sustainability tests to innovation gates), their networks (example: engage external stakeholders for insight)  and their purpose (example: can you set a very ambitious target?). Be opportunistic about embedding one of these recommendations in your company.

So, my answer is not a neat 5-point plan. It is context specific – understand your starting point, and the core purpose of the organisation. And it assumes you are a change agent with some support, but not enough for An Official Change Management Programme (not that those work anyway). My answer also combines the supposed ‘soft’ side (relationships and capacity building) with the ‘hard’ stuff of budgets and processes.

All of which says that successfully disrupting an organisation is not a neat, linear process that can be prepackaged. There is a skill in choosing what to do when. But in order to learn that skill you’ve got to try some things out. Go on, run a pilot.


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