Mind the gap: Is innovation the missing ingredient in your sustainability strategy?

Awash with good sustainability intentions – but is that enough? here is a brief user guide to innovation for more profound (and potentially profitable) change.

Call it ESG, regeneration or just good sensible business – this is sustainability’s time to step into the limelight. After cowering behind risk in the back row of any agenda, it is now being allocated a front-seat right next to strategy, by forward-thinking businesses. And that is quite right! Because in this time of escalating environmental and social crisis sustainability will create the conditions for business to survive.

Maybe. Because business won’t survive if it sees sustainability as an add-on to its existing operations. Sure, it will get part of the way there to use this as a risk-lens to interrogate where business has gaps. But filling those gaps isn’t enough. At the least we need a leap of imagination to achieve high standards set for carbon reduction, etc. and – to truly reap the transition rewards – we need to create a new landscape. This means using sustainability as a lens to unleash human ingenuity. To redesign the way business operates – and, in the process – rethink what we value.

This means step back! Step back from a primary focus on the tools of sustainability – including ESG reporting, circular economy, materiality, and SDG’s. Look at the whole picture and work out how to strategically shift to take advantage of an emerging paradigm of a world operating within environmental constraints.

Most of all it means invest in innovation. It is only innovation that will close the gap between where we are now and where the world needs to move towards. Recycling, renegotiating, and rearranging the deck can help an organisation move some way towards a new future, but it won’t do enough to repurpose it for a changing world. The gap is real.

The word innovation can be fluffy for some and feared by others. For us, in this context and this time and for business, it means this:

+ Design a radical strategy:

What does your business need to do and be to at the least remain relevant and preferably benefit in the changing world? How do you put purpose at its core to ensure active alignment of people and possibility to strategy? Can you be bold enough to set an agenda that changes your sector? Can you tell a different story of possibility?

There are some excellent examples of organisations repurposing themselves for a better future. Phillip Morris has performed a pivot on a new-found purpose to turn away from traditional cigarettes, Veolia has reframed its relationship to waste to see it as a resource, Umicore has shifted from extractive mining to processing existing sources. These are all commercial pivots which align them to new world values and opportunities. All will help them build capabilities to compete and resilience to survive.

Recently we worked with property developers to bring together waste, energy and food production to positively shift social outcomes for a region.  We use systems change theory, reinvention methodologies and future valuation models to support business in identifying and understanding valuable options.

+ Invest in innovation:

How far will your business as usual get you towards your goals? Do you have sufficient internal innovation capability? Can you secure funds or use innovative funding mechanisms to support the transformation? Can innovation processes and governance create a safe zone to unite your organisation towards new outcomes?

A thoughtfully designed co-innovation process allowed disparate parts of Interface to come together to meet a shared innovation investment agenda. It showed gaps, overlaps, and united the governance structure to objectively address investment towards a shared strategic direction.  It highlighted resources and capabilities needed to meet strategy. It formed a testing ground for strengthening relationships, influencing perception and building capabilities required to grow the company.

We worked closely with Interface to put this programme into place. We co-defined a simple and effective innovation investment programme using models, structures, and processes from traditional asset investment.

+ Create fertile ground:

How do you effectively engage employees for change? How do you collect and manage ideas generated by employees? How do you find internal entrepreneurs and provide them with tools to support change?

Radical strategy done right can act as an enormous booster for employee engagement. But this will wane unless there is active engagement in co-creating the sustainability journey.  This might be about shifting mindsets through leadership development programmes (and through She Leads Change we’ve worked with Pearson, Nesta, Ellen McArthur and others to build perspectives and capabilities for the future). It may be through two-way communication e.g. creating internal dialogue circles which allow new concepts to be socialised (see xxx). It may be an ambitious programme, like the SABMiller Prosper campaign to uncover internal entrepreneurs globally, give them visibility and resources to be the change from within. It might be through a variety of mission driver sprints to stimulate and create the future.

Having run these and other programmes, it is clear, that any outcome is only as powerful as the degree to which people are brought with on the change journey. Sustainability is a strong rallying cry to engage people across the business to contribute to fresh thinking.

+ Seed generative collaboration:

Where can you work with others to achieve more? Can the multiple parties work together to create a systemic response? What ripple effect could you cause in your sector or beyond? Can you support the formalising of the sustainability agenda through collaboration? Where are cross-organisational conversations needed to promote widespread change?

AB Inbev, Coca-Cola Company, Colgate-Palmolive Company and Unilever are part of a 100+ Accelerator to fund and pilot sustainable innovation in supply chains. In its first three cohorts, the 100+ Accelerator has worked with 70 startups in over 20 countries supporting entrepreneurs to solve sustainability challenges. M&S has put collaboration at the centre of it’s sustainability strategy, convening the sector to solve problems that effect more than one organisation, e.g. they ae a founding member of Ethical Trading Initiative, Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (Sedex), Food Network for Ethical Trade (FNET).

We work with multi-stakeholder facilitation techniques including Deep Democracy and World Cafes to surface challenge, foster collaboration and spark ingenuity. This was powerful in supporting the Body Shop, H&M, Estee Lauder and others to seed the idea of a cosmetics collaboration for sustainability. We saw systemic change by bringing together DE&I individuals into a collective impact training programme through She Leads Change. We worked with the Climate Finance Accelerator to bring together governments, funding and climate projects to overcome barriers to investment in climate change.

If you are wanting to not only meet your goals but rethink how you can do this in ways that exponentially increase your business value – please do get in touch. Innovation is the answer.


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