Category Archives: Social innovation

Social innovation refers to new strategies, concepts, ideas and organisations that meet social needs of all kinds – from working conditions and education to community development and health – and that extend and strengthen civil society.

Talking shop: systems change, intrapreneurship, entrepreneurship, innovation and social impact…

Thank you Cecilia Thirlway @solverboard for a fun interview! The original posting of her interview with me is on Medium.

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Talking to Nicola was a pleasure as it brought up a topic I hadn’t thought about for a while — system change and system design. I wrote about systems, particularly human systems, a while ago and have always been fascinated by how they grow and develop. Nicola’s thoughts on the subject were a really interesting insight. It was also a joy to talk to someone who was interested in the human journey of entrepreneurship as well as the economic and commercial one — we love to tell the stories of successful entrepreneurs, but spend less time working out how more people can be helped to be successful with the right emotional and practical support. And finally, of course, the topic of tech for good is one close to my own heart.


So Nicola, tell me about The League of Intrapreneurs. What makes an Intrapreneur and why do they need a league?

Intrapreneurs as people inside companies that have got a passion to create social impact, as well as the influencing skills to be able to make good things happen. We’ve seen some outstanding examples: Miriam Turner from Interface coming up with extraordinary ideas to be able to turn ocean plastic into carpet with social returns. She’s a great example of an Intrapreneur – adding significant value to businesses whilst at the same time solving big social issues.

To be effective, Intrapreneurs need a few different things: first is the support of others to know that there’s other people like them – an identity. Second, they need community they can learn from and with, and to go on the journey with them. The third thing they need is new skills and different ways of thinking. And the last thing that they need is visibility.

The League of Intrapreneurs helps create that identity and then is supported by people like me that offer tangible services to Intrapreneurs – through peer learning circles, through workshops on systems thinking and influence and tribe creation. Others support visibility and learning through conferences like the Intrapreneurship Conference and through competitions.

Do you think anybody can be an intrapreneur or is it a certain mindset or certain set of skills that people need?

It’s a tough choice to be an Intrapreneur! I think that everybody has a seed of possibility inside them but to be brave enough to buck the system for something that you believe in is a big step.

What sort of organisations do these people come from?

We find them in almost any organisation — we’re seeing more and more people coming out of different types of organisations that could work together to shift the system. For example, the Ellen McArthur Foundation is linking together corporate intrapreneurs in the plastics space with government agencies and NGO’s. We start to see people from different organisations working together to form ecosystems of change agents tackling big issues.

And how does the League fit in with your other work?

Essentially, I do three different things:

Firstly, innovation for large organisations. This includes strategy, global innovation programmes and internal start-ups for organisations like Interface, M&S, Nesta, the Carbon Trust and SABMiller.

Alongside that I’ve been working with disruptive start-ups with the idea of helping them scale their positive impact through Upstart Advice. I coach entrepreneurs from various programmes including Climate-KIC, Mass Challenge, Climate Launch Pad, Innoenergy and Imperial Enterprises Lab.

And finally I help convene change agents and support movements for change in order for the change seeded to have somewhere to land. This means that people to have the skills, the mindsets and the ways of working in place as this change happens. All of it is a way of understanding change and the self and opportunities to create better impact.

The first one was Six Heads, which has been a huge amount of fun: it’s young and it’s quirky and it’s all on sustainable innovation. It’s a gathering place for professionals to share stories, to learn together, to run events for each other to test out their skills and that can involve anything from perma-culture to trapeze. This is now run by Louisa Harris – an extraordinary young woman. The second movement is the League of Intrapreneurs, which I’ve helped to establish in the UK. Last, is my new initiative, the Future Academy, which brings together change-makers to solve societies most challenging problems and provides capabilities required for the next economy.

So that’s my model in terms of how I think about my work within the business system: transform the big, scale the small and create fertile ground for change to happen.

What kind of things do you tackle?

We did a really interesting project with SAB Miller last year: we were asked to work with them globally to support social innovation. It was fascinating because we were working with intrapreneurs across such a range of topics: we had someone from Switzerland looking at climate change, we had somebody in South Africa looking at poverty, another looking at access to markets for smallholder farmers, at water, the list goes on. All of these were internal projects that allowed growth opportunities for the employees involved, opportunities to increase business revenue and social impact. We set-up an innovation accelerator and supported projects through structured mentoring, coaching and communities of practice.

It was wonderful getting the feedback: one of the best quotes was somebody who said I’ve finally found meaning in what I do, I’ve got purpose in my job. I can see how I can make a difference and still do what I do day to day.

I think meaning is incredibly important, isn’t itYou get to a point in your life where you wonder why you bother, and what impact you have in the world.

It’s best to think: do I want to be part of the problem or part of the solution. All of us at the moment are exposed to so much horrible stuff: you know, you can’t pick up a newspaper without seeing fish dying, climate change, social inequity and the death of democracy… so how do we sit around and not do something. I think that people are looking for ways they can work differently and I think companies are starting to take more responsibility. One of the ways that they can do that is by unleashing their talent on these issues and to look for solutions that suit multiple objectives.

Why do you think that needs unleashing and why now? There were huge amounts of innovation in the industrial revolution, but no one was an innovation consultant then.

We face bigger social issues than we’ve ever faced before, and I don’t think it’s just about unleashing it I think it’s also about channelling it. I don’t think we need any more flavours of soft drink, I don’t think we need any more flavours of ice cream, but I do think we need to channel ingenuity into solving some social problems — and not only solving them but reframing some of the ways that we’re operating as a society. From consumerism to community or from consumer to citizen.

Do you think businesses are now much more interested in doing good?

A lot of it is enlightened self-interest. If you speak to the businesses pioneering this area — Marks and Spencer, Unilever — they talk about the fact that everybody wants to work with them as a result of this approach. For all businesses, being able to capture talent is important, and millennials particularly are looking for purposeful organisations to join.

When you look at indicators about employee well-being and retention, a company that provides meaning is important. It was interesting when the retail sector here was hit how quickly Marks and Spencer bounced back versus some of the other retailers, because there’s so much trust in it as a purpose-based organisation.

And is the pace of change getting faster? Do you think movements such as Tech for Good are gathering pace?

I like to think so. Think about the progression from sponsorship 20 years ago where big corporates would give money to their local football team to modern corporate social responsibility. Now we’re seeing the third wave where it’s becoming far more integrated. You see companies having to report to investors on climate change, you see organisations having to think about purpose to attract millennials, you see them looking at their supply chains differently and having different kinds of contracts to have longer term relationships, you see choice editing which is beyond commercial.

A great example is Interface, which makes floor tiles. About 20 years ago, their CEO realised he was ruining the world by running this business and he set out to completely reinvent the manufacturing of one of the most boring things ever: the carpet tile. He’s pioneered environmental standards around how carpeting works, he invented little stickies that go on the floor so that you’re not putting toxic glue down. The most recent one uses discarded fishing nets to make carpets. These discarded nets often end up floating in the sea killing fish, but now they have a value to the fishermen so they’re not being discarded.

In one of my other interviews I discussed philanthropists like Bill Gates who make a huge amount of money and then redistribute it. Is it better to make money and then redistribute or share the talent, or is it better to have a more equitable world to start with?

I’d love a more equitable world to start with, but what I believe is that business is the biggest system that we’ve got, it’s completely powerful. It links all of us and it determines and creates the world around us, so it makes sense for us to use this system differently. What I’m really engaged in is the system redesign, because I think that business could and should be the thing that solves the problems that we’ve got. It is a social construct: we just need to construct it differently.

That sounds interesting — tell me more?

My interest in systems innovation came out of the question of whether I am doing the right thing. You try and do things, but are you intervening in such a way that you are going to make a fundamental difference? I started becoming more and more interested in what the points in any kind of system are where you can create the most change and how you work that out.

The thing that’s always fascinated me about human systems is the potential for the weird and the wonderful to happen. If you have any kind of engineering system you know you hit point a and b will happen, but as soon as humans get involved you get weirdness.

In a way, the word ‘system’ is wrong: there’s something deeply organic about the way that systems operate and in the way that we as humans operate. Where I start getting interested is in how the systems are partly embedded in the past and partly in the present, and how they are embedded with stakeholders and people. What are the stories that are being told in parts of the system, and how do we humanise it in such a way that we can start to understand where some of the levers are? A lot of the levers are around mindsets and perception.

I’m a big fan of Edison: lots of people invented the light bulb but he put the entire system together to make it work as a commercial item. Often we create something and we don’t understand what the different things are that we need to build around it. He had to carry out many system interventions to get his invention integrated — he trained people and he set up schools.

I’m noticing that coming out of the best universities are amazing post-graduates in physics and engineering and mathematics. They are the creators of the future but they don’t have a huge grounding in sustainability and systems thinking. I’m meeting some that are setting up their businesses at the moment and speaking to them about unintended consequences. People are creating drones and robotics and looking at machine intelligence, and they need to understand this stuff and go into it consciously.

It’s also important to understand that there are three journeys across any innovation programme. Of course there’s the journey from the idea to the implementation, but I think there’s two other journeys that are often overlooked. One is the journey of the self: what do I want to be, where am I going with this, but also your personal resilience — how do you make sure that you look after yourself on the journey? A personal resilience plan is just as important as a business plan or a stakeholder engagement plan.

The third journey is the journey of team, how do we get like-minded people to work together, how do you set objectives and make it work for everybody. There’s enormous amounts of literature around developing ideas and commercialisation, but the weak points making things fail are around influencing those inside your company, building a team or creating the community that can drive things through.

I think that’s what’s next for me, to think about that idea.


These articles are supported by idea management platform Solverboard. I work with Solverboard as their Head of Innovation Practice, and they have kindly agreed to support this side project of mine. Do check out their suite of idea management tools for businesses of any size, their public open innovation platform Solverboard Open, or their extremely well-written blog 😉

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Getting what you want: Pitching

Pitching – how you frame and communicate your need – is essential to getting what you want.  

I’ve been thinking about pitching for many years to support the entrepreneurs I work with win competitions, create partnerships and raise funding. Pitching skills help us get what we want beyond starting a new business or initiative. We pitch when we present ourselves for a job interview, market our product, tell our colleagues our new idea or try to get kids to clean their rooms!

There are many resources available that explain what to include for the content of the pitch. This may differ slightly depending on situation, but generally we need to be able to explain the value proposition, revenue model/incentive, team and relevant capabilities and high-level plan of action.

However, when listening to pitches, I’m often reminded of Maya Angelous’ quote “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Below are some of the less tangible things I’ve learnt about successful pitching:

Pitching starts from first contact – any interaction you have whether on phone, email or written document should all be seen as part of your pitch and create a coherent and compelling narrative. Everything you do builds (or takes away from) credibility and connection. A rude or badly thought-through email before the pitch can create a poor impression. Ask yourself what story you are telling through each interaction and adjust if necessary.

Prepare for the moment you walk into the room – be sure to present your best self before you start. How are you holding yourself? What are you wearing?  What is your non-verbal communication? How are you standing? You can only create one first impression… someone who slopes into the room looking hung-over and wearing only one shoe, may not get the desired response! What first impression do you want to create?

Check in with yourself – know why you want this and be clear which part of your psyche is motivating you. Projects and ideas motivated by ego and anger may lose momentum. Those by a deep connection to the outcome or a curiosity about self are generally easier to sustain.  People support people and likeability is a huge, sometimes unconscious, part of any assessment. Be authentic. Why am I doing this and what do I need to do to bring my best self to it?

Be prepared – to explain your project or idea succinctly against any criteria set out. Make sure your ‘ask’ is clearly articulated. I find the business model canvas or other similar tools useful to ensure I have thought through all aspects of a proposition. Trying different pitch types e.g. pitching using the Pixar style or for a TED talk are useful preparation. Practice both words and gestures. Create a prototype to test/prove the concept. Am I ready for anything?

Know your protagonist – who is this idea benefitting? Do they care? What do they have to say about it? An idea needs to centre on an ‘end-user’, ‘beneficiary’ or ‘customer’. There are lots of great design thinking tools that allow you to think through any idea from the protagonists’ viewpoint. This is critical to the success of any idea. Who is this idea for and why do they care?

Check in with your audience – are they ‘getting it’? Should you pause to connect with them? Are you speaking ‘their language’ (this may be by competence e.g. finance or marketing, their orientation e.g. expressive, quiet or literally cockney, northern, etc.). Have you identified and clearly communicated what’s in it for them? Can you get them to interact with and thereby connect with the idea? A good way to do this is to ask a question e.g. “How many of you travelled here by bus this morning?” Am I connecting with my audience?

Be self-aware – check if you need to flex your style i.e. to minimise or maximise personal attributes e.g. hand gestures, enthusiasm, aggression, quiet confidence, etc. Check your confidence level – there is something different about saying ‘we are trying to’ vs ‘we will’. Are you over-using ‘filler’ words such as “some”, “like”?  These are indicators of a lack of confidence, conviction or preparation. How am I being in this moment?

Bring the idea to life – use graphs, stories, prototypes, story boards, lego and movies to help explain your idea. I’ve seen people bring cooking to a pitch for a new restaurant, create a future magazine cover for a social project and design a prototype of a new wind turbine with toilet rolls to explain their concepts.  Creating an experience is very powerful. Make sure it adds to your idea not distracts from the pitch. Can I explain my idea in a creative way?

Keep it simple – know what your ‘big idea’ is and be able to explain it in a single sentence. It might be helpful to list our context, complication, solution beforehand in order to be clear on the problem it solves and the value it adds. Don’t have more than 3 points in your pitch. Be clear on your 3-5 key messages and ensure these are communicated. Test your pitch on unusual suspects – your kids or the pizza delivery man. This will force you to simplify your message and check your language. What is the one key takeaway for my audience?

Don’t be afraid of questions – you ‘own’ the conversation. Any answer is a good one if delivered with authenticity, humility and openness. The delivery is often more important than the content. If you don’t know the answer – be honest – but come up with a plan to get the answer. Typical questions pick up on risks, stakeholders, customer needs, capabilities and funding. Can I stay calm and connected to my belief in this idea no matter what?

Creating a successful pitch is as much about your personal preparedness and mindset as it is about your revenue model (we rarely believe your ‘hockey stick revenue curve’, anyway!). Preparation is all about you – stay true to yourself and authentic in your communication.

And best of luck!

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If you have a world-changing idea that needs some help – please contact me on nicola.millson@6-heads.com. Through the Upstart programme and League of Intrapreneurs we work with intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs to shape and scale social innovation. More information about the kinds of businesses we work with and things we do can be found here: Scaling disruption

FOSTERING YOUR CAPACITY FOR SYSTEMS CHANGE & LEADERSHIP

If you are an innovator working to create positive social change from within your organisation – you may be an ‘intrapreneur’. We would like to invite you to join fellow Intrapreneurs from companies including: Barclays, Interface, M&S, BMW and Unilever to be inspired, build skills and meet exceptional people. On the 3 May, as part of a regular event series, the League of Intrapreneurs will be holding a session on Leadership for Systems Change. If you feel this might be a good event for you to attend, please see information below and apply for membership at hello@leagueofintrapreneurs.com or get in touch with me at nicola.millson@leagueofintrapreneurs.com. 

“Collaboration is the Human Face of Systems Thinking.” – Peter Senge

Companies today are facing complex, external challenges, many of which cannot effectively be tackled by one institution or even one sector in isolation. Issues such as climate change, water scarcity and youth unemployment, for example, are all systems-level challenges, which require radical collaboration across a host of likely and perhaps unlikely allies.

Consider Café Direct – The UK’s first and largest Fairtrade drinks brand – which was founded through a collaboration between Oxfam, Traidcraft, Equal Exchange Trading and Twin Trading as a response to the 1989 global collapse in coffee prices. Café Direct since revolutionized the Fairtrade market by launching the first mainstream coffee brand catalyzing a shift in the global system of coffee production and distribution.

Or take sustainable materials as another example. Though Nike is one of the most iconic brands on the planet, their ability to influence the footwear manufacturing supply chain to utilize more sustainable materials was limited. So, they teamed up with a diverse group of manufacturers and retailers to create the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Together – they have the ability to shift the system in a way that no single company could.

The ability to shift systems requires new ways of seeing the world as well as working with others – it requires systems leadership.

Join us for an inspiring evening with guest speakers:

Richard Evans, Chairman, Impact Hub Global 

Kresse Wesling, Elvis and Kresse 

Together, with fellow intrapreneurs, entrepreneurs and change agents, we’ll explore questions such as:

+ Systems feel so big and complex? How can I clarify my own understanding of systems change?

+ What role can I, my team and/or institution play in addressing systems change?

+ What are the capabilities required for effectively tackling systems change?

+ What tools and resources are available to help me deepen my capacity for systems change + leadership?

League of Intrapreneurs’ events are intimate, interactive and inspiring gatherings of seasoned and emerging intrapreneurs. We meet each month in different locations across London, hear from thought provoking speakers and have lively and enriching discussions in small groups. This is not a typical networking event. Expect to have your passions nurtured and your mind expanded, all whilst deepening friendships with other London-based impact intrapreneurs.

As a non-profit, we operate on a pay as you feel basis, with a recommended donation of £25.

To apply to join us or to learn more about membership, get in touch at hello@leagueofintrapreneurs.com.

With many thanks to our event sponsor, SABMiller.

WHEN: Tuesday, 3 May 2016 from 17:30 to 21:00

Scaling disruption

There are multiple ways we can intervene in the current business system in order to support change toward better environmental and social outcomes. One of these ways is to scale small initiatives that have the potential to create significant change in the current ways business operates. This is particularly effective where these ‘disruptors’ also act as commercial demonstrators to traditional organisations and inspiration for other emergent entities by proving the case for alternative forms of business.

I have a portfolio of these ‘disruptors’ that I currently coach from seed stage until first significant funding. This means taking them through a structured programme of business development, drawing on IDEO, LEAN and my own start-up experience across multiple sectors and stages of new business building.  The programme is underpinned my three key principles: fail fast, engage early and rapidly build credibility. This means we work closely together to:

  • Identify and engage potential customers to establish and build the business toward meeting real needs,
  • Set-up of a series of experiments where the team can quickly configure and test different operating methodologies, and
  • Understand how the market operates, where the gaps are and which organisations could inform and, even better, certify the set-up.

This is underpinned by regular ‘pivoting’ as we reconfigure the business model to meet emerging needs and cost structures. It is supported by work around vision, team dynamics, business basics and fundraising.

Two oranisations in my portfolio are currently seeking an extension of their seed funding. They are:

Clotho London: The destination for sustainable fashion. http://www.clotholondon.co.uk/

Set-up by two recent graduates from Imperial College (who worked together as Chemistry lab partners) this business aims to create a secondary market for good, used clothing. It is a simple technology platform built on the principle of clothes swapping. It provides young women with a more sustainable option for quality fashion choices. Clotho thereby works towards preventing new purchases of high-street brands and reducing the 350,000 tonnes of used clothing that goes to landfill in the UK every year. They currently operate collections at 3 UK Universities and are rapidly growing a loyal customer base. They are looking to raise investment to fund operational costs as they scale their service.

Vesco: Developing sustainable feed systems. https://vescofeed.wordpress.com (under-development)

Vesco has been set-up by four classmates from the Imperial College Environmental Technology MSc programme.  They are developing a sustainable ‘insect-based’ animal feed designed to mitigate the environmental and biodiversity impacts of contemporary soy and fishmeal-based feeds. They aim to harness the efficiency of insects in converting organic waste into high-quality nutrients and are running a number of experiments to rear  fly larvae on a variety of organic wastes. They are working closely alongside high-profile potential customers to co-develop product specifications and a unique, ‘circular’ offering and are in the process of organising trials for pilot products. Vesco is looking or funding to allow further development of the concept by paying a base wage to the team. 

Both these worthwhile organisations will effect change in the existing systems they operate within – clothing and food – through demonstrating initiative, possibility and trialing new business models.  Any funding or other suggestions to scale and support these worthwhile organisations would be appreciated.

Alternatively, if you are a young enterprise with a good idea towards a positive shared future or an investor/accelerator/incubator with disruptors in your funding portfolio  that need help in clarifying their business models towards delivering scalable impact –  please do get in touch.

For further information or to arrange a meeting, please fill in the form below: