April 21, 2011

How Can We Build a Culture of Disruptive, Heretical Innovation?

The forces driving the business world toward sustainability are vast, powerful, systematic…and growing. In recent months, we’ve witnessed massive climate disruptions everywhere from Russia and Pakistan to Brazil and Nashville. Resource constraints are a reality, with serious discussions about peak oil, peak coal, peak coffee, and, well, peak everything. Technology-driven transparency is creating a mad rush to capture product and company sustainability data, and companies continue to push new demands aggressively up their supply chains.

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And the mega-force to beat all – the relentless rise of population and living standards in the developing world – continues unabated. So how will we provide a good quality of life to what will be 9 billion people on a resource-constrained planet?

In short, we need some very large changes to “business as usual,” requiring radically new ways of thinking.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve written frequently (in my last book Green Recovery in particular) about the need for “heretical” innovation – that is, asking very hard questions that challenge the very nature of a business or product. I wrote recently about two companies, Waste Management and Xerox, in the middle of deep transitions. From hauling waste and getting paid by the ton, to managing recycling streams and helping customers achieve zero waste goals. Or from selling as many printers as possible to helping customers reduce the number of devices and do less printing over all. Asking customers to use less of their core products – that’s heretical.

Some will point out that this is similar to the concept of “servicizing”, and of course it is. But I believe there’s a deeper heresy at work than just turning a product into a service. After all, Xerox could offer outsourced printing services and try to print as many pages as possible. It’s the combination of service and talking openly to customers about using less in total that makes it novel.

So I have a paradoxical task in mind: figuring out how to systematically and logically ask illogical, wacky, heretical, leapfrog questions. I’m looking for ideas from the assembled knowledge and experience of the sustainability leaders reading this.

My three main questions are:
1) How do we cultivate a culture of heretical innovation (how do we make it ok to ask wacky questions)?
2) How do we identify and support the true innovators, intrapreneurs, and heretics in even the largest organizations?
3) Is sustainability-driven innovation fundamentally different than ‘regular’ disruptive innovation, and how?

On the first question at least, I have a few broad ideas. Here’s a starting list for budding corporate heretics:

Start with value-chain data to identify big risks and opportunities. With solid data, managers can focus limited resources on tackling the real footprint and drive toward new ideas and questions. For example, Pepsi’s Tropicana brand is experimenting with low-carbon fertilizer after discovering that growing oranges was the biggest part of its GHG footprint. And more famously, P&G launched Tide Coldwater to address the largest (by far) portion of detergent lifecyle emissions, washing clothes in hot water.

Use open innovation. The hottest concept in innovation today is inviting people in to solve your problems. P&G has opened up its innovation pipeline to anyone with a good product idea. A few companies are sharing some of their best ideas (and patents) with the world – as Nike and others do with GreenXChange – and then hoping for reciprocal karma.

Try “co-creation” (the second hottest concept in innovation and a subset of open innovation perhaps). IBM has had great success in recent years with “Innovation Jams” that allow all employees and customers to throw ideas into the mix. Cross-fertilizing people from radically different disciplines, and from outside the organization as well, can lead to some novel questions.

Show personal leadership (walk the talk). Have senior execs take part in jams and brainstorms. Let them publicly generate wacky ideas and support pilot projects to explore them.

Systematize innovation. 3M and Google famously set aside a portion of everyone’s time for whatever strikes their fancy. More companies should emulate this practice, but also make a point of focusing specifically on sustainability pressures.

Award the wackiest ideas, even the ones that don’t pan out. Some public pats on the back and recognition for employees who show bravery and try new things can go a long way.

Create competition. Sharing data on sustainability performance internally can drive real competition and learning across divisions or products. Or utilize public prizes, like the famous X Prize or the $1 million Netflix Prize.

All of these paths can help us regularly ask the toughest, most interesting questions. Only then can we match the scale of innovation to the scale of the sustainability challenge.

These are just a few ideas (after all, this is a blog, not a book). There are many more. So please send me your thoughts on how to drive breakthrough innovation and how to find the heretics in the organization. Finally, any examples of heretical questions within your organizations are very welcome. (andrew@eco-strategies.com).

(This post first appeared on Corporate Eco-Forum's site.)

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