8 Questions for Sustainability Innovators

Here is an article we wrote early last year, and we thought it was worth sharing again! Enjoy:

At Strategic Sustainability Consulting, we love Scott Anthony, the thought leader and managing partner of the innovation and growth consulting firm Innosight. His book, The Little Black Book of Innovation, challenged us, and we recommend it to anyone thinking about how to innovate within a company.

But enough flattery. Anthony's recent Harvard Business Review article, Eight Essential Questions for Every Corporate Innovator, got us thinking about how innovation and sustainability are a natural fit, and we wanted to share it with SSC readers.

Below, we've highlighted the questions that Anthony recommends that corporate innovators ask themselves, and then we added our thoughts below each question, from a sustainability perspective.

Identifying New Growth Opportunities

  • What problem is the customer struggling to solve?
  • Which customers can’t participate in a market because they lack skills, wealth, or convenient access to existing solutions? 

There is a huge opportunity for companies to use sustainability as a lens to enter new markets -- including the developing world. Selling to the "bottom of the pyramid" requires innovative thinking -- and companies like Unilever, Coke, and Nestle are paving the way, by using "shared value creation" to benefit the local communities in which they operate.

Identifying the Threat of Disruption

  • Where are we overshooting the market by providing features that users don’t care about and don’t want to pay for? 
  • If you were going to disrupt your company, how would you do it?

Despite a lot of wishful thinking by companies, consumers generally are not willing to pay extra for "green" features. Instead, savvy companies are using sustainability to enhance safety, quality, durability, efficiency, and value. Don't make the mistake of thinking you can get a green premium for your product -- instead focus on creating a better product or service through innovation. Being "green" is just the icing on the cake.

Designing Compelling Offerings

  • Who has already solved the problem you are trying to address? 
  • What can you do that few other companies in the world can do? 

Sustainability is a global challenge, and no single company can solve it alone. Innovators need to identify and exploit the leverage points in the system--and often those appear at the junction between entities. Public-private partnerships like the UN Global Compact, collaborations like The Sustainability Consortium, and industry groups like the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy are proving that sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Commercializing Your Idea

  • What assumption are you making that, if false, would blow your strategy up? 
  • How can you learn more affordably and efficiently? 

The world of sustainability is rapidly changing-- methodologies, regulations, best practices, frameworks, legislation, stakeholder expectations--and the work of sustainability innovators is never done. Make sure that your eyes are not so closely fixated on your prize that you miss the changing world around you. You need to continue to regularly engage with your peers, to review your risk assessment methodology, and to indulge colleagues who will play the devil's advocate. Look for partners across your value chain, and make an effort to challenge each other in your various pursuits!

Thanks to 2degrees for publishing a version of this article!  Read the 2degrees article here.

Have additional ideas on ways for sustainability leaders to innovate?  Leave a comment or join the conversation on Twitter!