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Innovation and Sustainability: Brothers in Arms

Doug Collins - Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The computer hardware company Cisco published an article on how blockchain technology holds promise in accelerating the adoption of solar energy. The approach, which uses a version of Bitcoin called Solarcoin, incentivizes people who produce small amounts of power through micro-payments of the crypto-currency.

The article stayed at the macro level, envisioning small payments to millions of households connected to the grid. There might be no reason, however, why the chief sustainability officer of a company could not apply the same approach to create an intra-firm market composed of the firm’s plants and offices: any entity that consumes electrical energy.

Isn’t technology grand? Isn’t innovation grand? Innovation in the service of sustainability: greentech.

In my work with clients, however, I at times confront the compartmentalization of initiatives. The dialogue might go something like as follows.

“We are the innovation people. See us here in the innovation lab. The sustainability people? Oh, yes, they work down the hall. Good people. We sort our recyclables here. Or, at least we try to. Why do you ask?”

In reality, the people who hold the charters to build cultures of innovation and sustainability share many of the same beliefs, see many of the same opportunities, and face many of the same challenges.

Innovation and sustainability practitioners share a belief that the potential within each of us can lead to positive transformation. Some see the business benefit first and then the need to pull people forward to realize it. Some see the human potential first and then the need to push people forward in the way that leads to business benefit. The very best practitioners spend a lot of time serving as coaches and counselors. They work in the service of others.

Although I am less well versed in a day in the life of a sustainability practitioner, I suspect the same holds true for them. One envisions the sustainability practitioner, for example, working closely with their peers at a plant, trying to minimize waste or emissions while still providing a quality product for the market.

Innovation and sustainability practitioners see similar opportunities. An innovation that minimizes re-work in a critical process saves money that flows to the bottom line. A sustainability initiative that reduces waste saves trash haulage fees that flows, too, to the bottom line.

As with innovation, in general, innovation in sustainability can be wholly transformative, as the Cisco article on Solar Coin describes.

Innovation and sustainability practitioners face similar challenges. The activity may not, at times, be viewed as “core” to the business, no matter how clearly this thinking flies in the face of reality. As a result, turnover in key roles may be high. Budgets may be less fixed than desired. Leadership’s demand for “a solid business case” may be as much an expression of fear of next quarter’s results than an authentic desire to grasp the real business value the practice delivers.

Given the shared opportunities and the shared miseries, attempts to cordon off the two initiatives seem unwise.

The following figure depicts a holistic view—not the singular view, but one view—of how the pieces of a firm designed for the Digital Age might fit (figure 1).

Here the matrix is not by function, but by how the intent to achieve certain cultural attributes—“cultures of…”—mesh with the critical value streams that enliven every firm.

In reality, each cultural attribute informs one another as much as they influence the value streams.

Could we, for example, manage waste in a production process in an effective way, absent a culture of quality? Absent a culture of safety?

No.

This view of the firm appeals to me because the potential for authentic transformation—real change—happens at the intersections, where sustainability meets product development, for example.

Perhaps one of the primary goals of firm-level leadership is to ensure that these collisions of cultural attributes and value streams occur regularly, bucking the tendency of people to remain in their comfort zones.

The road ahead seems dauntingly hard. Trends such as automation and climate change promise to disrupt society in ways that nobody living today has experienced.

The firm, as an organizing principle for delivering value, seems as if it might serve as a useful vessel by which we advance. That advancement, however, depends on the continual evolution of the firm, itself, beginning with a better awareness of its full potential. Potential is realized where culture, value streams, and enabling practices mesh and clash. 

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