THE BLOG

Battle for Our Future: Sustainability vs. Innovation

02/25/2015 06:36 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

Show your average chief innovation officer or chief marketing officer the corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan from the chief sustainability officer and they are unlikely to get that excited.

Strategy, marketing and innovation teams have one job: To grow the top line (revenues) and bottom line (profit) of the business. CSR teams, on the other hand, are usually in the business of reducing negative impacts, which can often reduce profit too. Within this everyday tension plays out our unique future-defining, 21st century battle, between growth and sustainability; between profit and purpose.

However, some cutting-edge businesses are starting to see this can be a false dichotomy. We can use the constraints of sustainability as a prism to illuminate breakthrough innovation that planet-ready and world-positive. Welcome to CSR-led or sustainable innovation. What looks like impossible constraint can be leveraged to transform problems into possibilities... if the mind is open, and the heart courageous, enough.

Let us look to the creative arts for inspiration. Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham. This worldwide bestseller was the result of a bet between the author and publisher to see if he could write a great book with only 50 words. The wonderful cadence of "Sam I Am", that millions of us grew up with, was a result of putting constraint at the start of an innovation process, rather than leave it to the end. Examples abound from other areas of creativity. Dancers appropriate the constraints of gravity to dazzle us with new forms. Composers appropriate the constraints of key and chord to break open our hearts with their symphonies. Renoir is reputed to have said, "One morning, one of us was out of black and so used blue instead. And impressionism was born."

In business too, far from being a dampener on our creativity, constrain can be the key that unlocks breakthroughs; disruptions. Constraints, setting us free from our own limits to actively transform a challenging reality into a creative revolution. At the ad agency I worked for in the '90s, we managed to create famous ads with tiny budgets because we were forced to innovate away from conventional and expensive TV. The result was the famous "Hello Boys" ads for Wonderbra; and the equally famous F.U.C.K. campaign.

On the other hand, when there are few constraints and too much money, pap is often the result. Many Hollywood movies with budgets over $100 million have been critical and commercial disasters. Yet 1979's Mad Max cost $200,000 to make and grossed $99 million. 2009's Paranormal Activity cost just $15,000 to create and made $193 million!

Constraint can be what galvanises the human spirit to innovate most breathtakingly.

There is no greater constraint on business for the forceable future than the reality of one planet, 7 plus billion, global warming, social injustice and generational empowerment. Any business that avoids grappling with this future is going to fail, at some point, in some way.

How will your organization flourish in a world where:

  • Climate change drives ecological transformation, like the droughts hitting the Mid-West and the flooding of sea-front property, wiping out trillions from GDP?
  • Consumer activism and shareholder revolts target companies change laws and block lobbying power?
  • Real-time data trumps expert opinion and expensive studies?
  • Ethical employees only want to work for organizations with purpose... and whistle-blow on those that don't do the right thing?
  • Disengaged teams under-perform, failing to drive productivity (U.S. job satisfaction is at its lowest level -- 45 percent -- since records began)?
  • The digital generations want to share more and buy less?

It's not a question of if these types of constraints are coming your way but when. The demographic shift from Baby Boomer to Millennial alone will bring much of it.

Yet there is a way to drive growth that contributes, rather than growth that damages. It all starts with the problems we focus on. Einstein famously said: "If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes." Our lives and livelihoods depend on us identifying the right kinds of problems; and cracking them open with the massively powerful Strategic Breakthrough Innovation toolkit.

If we focus the stunning creative agility of 21st century capitalism on problems that matter, then things are looking up. Government, with its ever-fractured political power play and ever-waning budgets, is unlikely to do this for us. Yet great businesses know how to solve problems in effective, often stunning, ways.

It may not be as 'easy' or 'simple' as developing yet another brand extension or new service. Yet it is always possible, as long as we have a strategic innovation process that bakes sustainability and social impact in at the start; and harnesses collaborative approaches to bring in the wisdom of the crowd, who have crucial insights into parts of the system that we are blind to. This means we have to integrate the tools of futuring and scenario planning; systems thinking; open innovation; business model innovation; disruptive innovation; service design and brand marketing... into a practical, do-able process that neither ignores complexity (which is what businesses have done for too long); nor dwells so much on it that nothing gets innovated! You can download a complimentary 80-page guide to designing and leading this kind of process here.

However, in my experience running such projects with various multi-nationals, the process is only 50 percent of what is important. The other 50 percent of success is down to the level of consciousness, creativity and collaboration of the leadership. It is easy to cancel these kinds of projects after a tough quarter. Real leaders knows that nothing is more important to the business, themselves or the world. They are always seeking the win-win wins. They must guide their organizations on a journey to find and express their purpose; and empower themselves to avoid the knee-jerk reactions -- triggered by negative trading results or analyst commentary -- that shut down transformative innovation before it has had a chance to live.

The benefits of doing all this are huge, including: Having staff, particularly younger talent, actually want to work for you; having customers who are healthy and happy enough to buy your products; and actually still having an ecosystem for our economy to sit within.

There are no right answers. But if we aren't even given permission to ask the right questions, we might as well give up now. The great news is that there are limitless new business models waiting to be invented that can make our enterprises, society and planet thrive. Perhaps my favorite example is Nike+. It delivers outstanding profits (reported to have increased sales in running division by c.30 percent between 2011-2012 alone); utilizes new technology, multi-platform creativity and an expanded sense of brand purpose to help people be more fit and healthy; encourages people to use their own foot power instead of motor vehicles; fosters community cohesion and connection; and ensures there will continue to be a market for running apparel in a world of creeping obesity.

Sustainable innovation, and therefore truly responsible business growth can only happen when conscious, creative, and collaborative leaders choose to make it so. Then chief sustainability officer, chief innovation officer -- and chief talent officer -- can work together on their own version of Green Eggs and Ham.