5 tips to create a sustainability-focused innovation culture

A sustainability-focused innovation culture is a mindset that favours the design of products, production and supply-chain processes that take into account the limited nature of the earth resources.

An anti-planned-obsolescence tagline such as “design to last, not for the dump” describes it quite well!

In past posts, I presented why sustainability-focused innovation was the most critical innovation challenge of the 21st century http://wp.me/p2rMHi-5K and large corporate and institutional players initiatives http://wp.me/p2rMHi-6a.

The first step for your organization is to add this dimension to its corporate culture.

Following “common sense” tips might help you succeed:

1 – Green up boards!

Influential shareholders (e.g. pension funds, insurance companies) can lobby for the appointment of board members and senior leaders with a track record of sustainability programs developments.

This list of the 100 most sustainable corporations in the world might help you identify whom to recruit next… http://global100.org/annual-lists/2013-global-100-list.html

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As well as the shortlist of the sustainability leaders awards: http://www.edie.net/news/5/Congratulations-to-the-Sustainability-Leaders-Awards-finalists-2013/

2 – Add an innovation twist to the sustainability executive committee

A number of large companies have already set up sustainability steering committees. They defined goals around water and energy consumption, CO2 emissions or waste reduction.

Obviously, NGO pressure helped blue chips to take sustainability seriously. Management education now also boosts the understanding of “the triple bottom line concept” (for instance at Kellogg School of Management: http://www.kinglobal.org/about.php).

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However, many middle-size companies still have a journey to begin and baseline environmental performance indicators to gather.

Besides, for many companies, the sustainability dimension, which is both a must for humankind and a growing aspiration of populations, is not yet fully integrated into strategic planning and innovation processes.

A sustainability-focused–innovation executive committee lead by the CEO will ensure more focus and alignment on “innovation with sustainability inside”. It will review sustainability and innovation goals progresses.  It will ensure that both are integrated and that it encompasses all inputs, outputs, projects and functions of the company.

Who should be appointed?

A new dedicated leadership function: the head of sustainability-focused innovation, the heads of marketing, R&D, operations, supply-chain, sourcing, finance, HR and sales.

Nike took some leading steps in that direction: http://www.nikeresponsibility.com/report/content/chapter/our-sustainability-strategy

3 – Launch a centre of sustainability-focused-innovation excellence

A strong leadership team alignment is not sufficient to develop a culture of sustainability-focused-innovation.

It also requires a dedicated and passionate coordination as well as training activities for all functions. Launching an excellence centre is the perfect tool to promote hand in hand sustainability and innovation.

The excellence centre, under the CEO sponsorship, will coordinate the implementation of initiatives, notably in the area of strategic planning, product design, operations and supply-chain.

It can start as a one-man-show with a director level leader in charge of kicking off, communicating and pushing initiatives. It should then expand with a team of experts, champions and project leaders on an ad hoc or permanent basis depending on the projects scale.

4 – Create symbols of pride showcasing your sustainability and innovation mindset

Design and communicate about your innovative, low energy, no waste headquarters, R&D centers, and plants.

Dutch dairy company FrieslandCampina orchestrated a powerful communication campaign with the opening of its sustainable innovation centre by the Dutch Queen. http://www.frieslandcampina.com/english/news-and-press/news/press-releases/2013-10-18-frieslandcampina-innovation-centre-beoordeeld-als-zeer-duurzaam.aspx

News about your green HQ will provide trendy content to the press and bloggers. They will thank you in return with free corporate image improvement that will resonate positively with customers , communities and employees.

UN Headquarter in Copenhagen: http://denmark.dk/en/green-living/sustainable-projects/un-opens-green-headquarters-in-copenhagen/

Spiegel newspaper headquarters in Hamburg: http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/design-architecture/der-spiegel-moves-into-new-green-headquarters/1991

Amazon HQ in Seattle: http://www.sustainableindustries.com/articles/2011/03/amazon-responsible-urban-citizen

It will also prevent negative press coverage such as the one generated by the new “old style” Apple HQ: http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2012/03/13/whats-wrong-apples-new-headquarters

Another way to gain free reputation improvement is to obtain independent recognition of your environmental performance such as expert-based GRI ranking (www.globalreporting.org) or consumer-based rankings (http://www.rankabrand.org).

rankabrand5 – Recognize and reward sustainability-focused-innovation projects

As was done with safety (e.g. Safest plant of the year award, entry sign displaying the number of days without injury), initiatives and achievements related to sustainability-focused innovation projects should be acclaimed publicly and incentivized.

BMW for instance pushes and recognizes suppliers’ innovations in sustainability at the BMW innovation awards: http://www.bmwgroup.com/e/0_0_www_bmwgroup_com/verantwortung/lieferkette/nachhaltigkeit.html

bmw innovation awards

Dow on their side organized a large student sustainable innovation award: http://www.dow.com/sustainability/studentchallenge/

I look forwards to hearing about future sustainable-innovation twists to your corporate culture!

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7 “moon-inspired” innovation resolutions for 2013


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Explorers wanted: “hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” Ernest Shackleton, Antartic Explorer, 1914

Reading this quote on a wall at the Cape Canaveral Space Center, I thought about the many ups and downs, the days, months or even years of patience and frustration that are often the daily life of innovators.

The Space Center is actually an inspiring place for innovators of all ages. These guys in the 60’s had to invent everything from scratch to be able to land a man on the moon. And to do it, they only had pens and brains…and crazy explorers ready to die in the sky.

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But they did it ! And we can get some innovation learnings out of it…

1) Pick a mind-blowing goal

Would you be ready to work day and night or even to die to reach an everyman unchallenging goal ?

What stays in History are men doing big things. Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon, Nelson Mandela getting Black and Whites to talk to each other in South-Africa. Nobody will be inspired and follow you if your goals are too tiny. You want to enable men to live on Mars once the earth is too polluted. You want to find a technological solution to global slums unhealthy living conditions. Nothing else.

So, what’s your bold goal ?

2) Be the best story-teller ever

Before to reach the glorious day when masses crowd to use or buy your innovative product or solution, you will have to progress on a road full of labyrinths, twists, cracks, gatekeepers and carcasses. If you intend to keep progressing from base to base up to mount Everest peak, if you want your team and followers to keep walking along, you need communicative faith, some wins and a loud inspiring voice – or the one of your sponsor.

Your followers have to keep dreaming – or be afraid of what could happen if you did not make it…The US had a positive vision, be the first on the moon and a threat to fight, the rise of the red ideology.

Up to you now ! To keep them walking, get your inspiring story right and tell it well !

3) Ask “God” to be your innovation sponsor

The road to success can be very long and failures along the path can be outstanding – and public… Many early-stage space rockets exploded. Millions of dollars turned into smoke in seconds. Men even died to reach the moon. But they tried again and again and they did it.

Few men in an organization can withstand blow after blow without collapsing or being shown the door. The higher your sponsor is, the easier it will be to get continued credit for your team even against heavy contrary winds. You need (wo)men of power to defend the long-term approach that supports innovation breakthroughs.

4) Tap resources from a bottomless well

More often than not, every innovation project is constrained by resources. Is it not common to lack the extra budget or extra guy with the skill-set needed to solve some of your main challenges ? The US lunar program had a major advantage over many innovation projects: 400,000 people were working on it all over the country and money could be printed without end.

If you do not have this luxury, open innovation and crowd-funding could be your bottomless well…

5) But also bring your “MacGyver” kit

Sometimes, budgets are like a dry river. Sometimes you just don’t have the tools required. In such cases, a “MacGyver” or “resource based” approach can be instrumental to innovation success. Look at what is at your disposal and be smart. An elegant solution is not always what you need. The first moon rover did not have the best look or most comfortable seats. But it did the job with smart ideas in every corner to adapt to the lunar conditions. You can develop at a later stage a more evolved version with Recaro seats and a Pininfarina design 😉

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6) Learn by doing and improve incrementally

Trials and errors belong to the fundamentals of innovation. The US lunar program had to try everything for the first time ever. Every step was giving them a new understanding of what was possible in a situation and how to handle it. Each problem was a new step and new learning opportunity. Knowing that a man could survive a launch did not prove that he would not burn when entering the atmosphere on the way back.

Hence, make small steps but don’t stay in your lab. The Truth Is Out There !

7) Never give up

Obviously, the odds of success are extremely low for every new product or idea given the number of choices to make at each development step and given the moving environment around you. Obviously, something that does not work well is not ideal. Obviously, you need to convince many people, sponsors, followers, early adopters, and finally users or buyers.

But ultimately, if your idea was good, if you found the right path, if you had the right support and if you had some luck, you could really bring your positive stone to our world.

So, Never Give Up !