Sustainable innovation

These days the innovation agenda has a significant space devoted to thinking about the challenge of sustainability.   Maybe you’re a pessimist, seeing dire threats in the rate at which we are using up the planet’s resources and despoiling it as we go along this road, carelessly throwing the litter of our thoughtless consumption for later generations to pick up. Or maybe you are an optimist, seeing new opportunities in this changing world perspective, shifting to low carbon solutions, cleaner energy and smarter homes and cities.   Either way it’s likely that innovation- right across the spectrum, from new products and services, through new and improved processes to rethinking our underlying business and social models – will be involved. And this raises some important questions about how we approach the management of this – is it simply a case of business as usual or do we need to adjust and extend our routines for handling the challenge?

We did some work recently for the Network for Business Sustainability looking at this question and developed a model which saw the challenge in terms of three levels:

Operational optimisation – doing what we do but better

Organizational transformation – creating new opportunities

System building – enabling societal change

(You can find the report and more details here)

Whilst there is now quite extensive experience around the first two, the challenge of moving to thinking and working at a system level is significant. So it was good to find a new book which explores this in some depth and with a host of practical examples. The book is ‘Sustainable innovation’, written by Andrew Hargadon whose earlier work on how breakthrough innovation really happens and the key role of networks and brokers has been very influential.

The core of the book explores the capabilities which mangers need to develop within their organizations if they are to operate effectively in the sustainable innovation space. Each chapter explains a key area and then tries to draw down some specific management actions which might help, offering useful tools and frameworks for doing so on the way. Amongst key themes are the idea that what we term ‘revolutions’ in innovation are often long-term affairs, with many of the key elements already being in place for years or even decades. At a key point there is convergence and the radical shift takes place – but looked at over time it is a case of ‘long fuse, big bang’. Understanding these dynamics lies behind previous successful innovations at a system level – he uses extensively the examples of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison – and there is a need to build this system-thinking capability. He cites many failures in the sustainability space – for example the Better Place battery swap technology – which lacked this systemic perspective.

A key part of this capability lies in what he calls ‘nexus thinking’ – the ability to see and make relevant connections and build networks. In a world of hype around open innovation it’s helpful to have some insights about how to conduct this process in practical fashion – again learning some lessons from history. His earlier ideas about ‘recombinant innovation’ are helpful here as are the suggestions for how to enable effective brokerage and boundary spanning.

He also highlights the big challenge of ensuring compatibility with existing technical and social systems if innovations are to diffuse to scale. Once again Edison’s approach to this issue is instructive; rather than seek direct replacement of gas with electricity he gradually moved the idea into households; the light bulb was really a ‘Trojan horse’ to allow acceptance of what was a much broader set of technologies. The advice here is partly about ‘disguising technology’ so that users do not feel alienated by it but rather accept it as a version of something familiar.

Overall the book is well-structured and clearly written; it is very readable and full of practical, tools to help develop the capabilities which he talks about. At the same time it will be of value to students and researchers working in the field of innovation management. It offers a valuable extension to our understanding of innovation theory, challenging the ‘one size fits all’ models and suggesting we need to develop new variants to help deal with the sustainability innovation challenge. This book offers much more than a sketch map of how we might begin that journey.

(Details: ‘Sustainable innovation’, (2015) , Andrew Hargadon, Stanford University Press, ISBN 9780804792509)


High involvement innovation

In an uncertain world there can’t be many organizations which don’t recognize the importance of innovation – and the need to mobilize as much effort behind that task as possible. One of the great opportunities open to all of them is to engage the creativity of all employees in the organization – as one manager memorably put it, the big benefit is that ‘with every pair of hands you get a free brain!’

There’s plenty of evidence to back this up. Some of it comes from individual companies like Toyota which, since it began asking its employees to contribute ideas in the 1960s has received around 50 million suggestions for improvement (and implemented the vast majority of them). And some of it comes through sector and national studies which regularly highlight the contribution employees can make to sustained continuous improvement. It’s not just manufacturing – all sectors, including public services, can mobilize the same effect.

Right now there’s great emphasis on looking outside – the world of open innovation in which ‘not all the smart guys work for us’ is recognized and driving a search to find those smart guys out there with whom we could connect. And whilst this is undoubtedly a rich source of inspiration we shouldn’t forget the internal world of employees and their ideas. It’s one of the paradoxes of modern management that we have the key resource of creativity fitted as standard equipment in every person we employ – yet many organizations fail to recognize or manage to tap into this. The father of modern quality management thinking, W. Edwards Deming, used to call this ‘the gold in the mine’ – our challenge is finding up-to-date and effective ways to extract this mineral!

High involvement innovation (HII) isn’t as easy as it sounds. Yes, everyone can be creative and has plenty of ideas for improving things within the organization. But enabling them to do so – and sustaining their involvement – depends on creating an environment in which it can flourish. We were involved in a major research programme during the late 1990s which looked at this challenge across many countries and our key finding was that HII is not a binary thing, an on-off switch.   It needs to become a core part of the culture – ‘the way we do things around here’ if it is to have a sustained impact and become a strategic resource. And that depends on building nine core capabilities:

  • Establish HII as a core value – little improvements from everyone (LIFE) matter in this organization
  • Recognition and reward – this core value is reinforced by relevant incentives (and this is less about money than about being listened to, empowered, enabled to contribute)
  • Training and development to support learning about how to be an effective innovator
  • Establishing a core process to enable HII to happen – including allowing time and space for it to operate
  • Idea management systems which give feedback and action to ideas
  • Facilitation and support for HII – coaching, training, structures, etc.
  • Leadership – entrepreneurial responsibility and walking the talk
  • Strategic direction – policy deployment where bottom up capability meets top down clear direction about where and why improvements matter
  • Building dynamic capability – continuously reviewing and updating the HII approach

These challenges remain pretty much the key starting points for anyone thinking about implementing HII today. But, building on that last point, one of the big shifts in the context for HII is the powerful role which new technology is playing in creating enabling platforms. Where the old HII schemes often fell down was in idea management – simply capturing and processing suggestions in a largely manual system led to delays, lack of feedback, patchy implementation and eventual fall-off in interest and enthusiasm. Now there are many platforms which not only allow employees to make suggestions but also enable others to comment and build on those suggestions. They can go further, volunteering their help in implementation, providing experienced evaluation and creating teams willing and able to move entrepreneurial ideas forward form the inside. Linking such platforms and the capability they release to key strategic targets for the organization – policy deployment – can provide a powerful new innovation engine.

(More details on the original research which we conducted can be found here, together with links to some cases and video material:

And the network of researchers continues to operate today; the ‘Continuous Innovation Network (CINet)’ offers a vehicle for sharing ideas and experiences amongst researchers and practitioners interested in HII. See for more).