Why iteration over innovation leads to sustainable systems changes

I was at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference last week. This annual event, where Fortune magazine "gathers the smartest people [they] know in sustainability," is a cauldron of ideas and actions focused on finding "Sustainable Solutions," this year's conference theme. There is no shortage here of big ideas.

Hannah Jones, Nike's Vice President of Sustainable Business and Innovation, speaking on a panel titled "Pushing the Boundaries of Green," summed up neatly what many of us in the room were thinking when she said, "If we aren't working towards system change, we might as well go home." Unfortunately, she didn't reveal to us the magic formula for changing the system. 

When we think and talk about system change, we often default to thinking only about dramatic and abrupt changes to the status quo, driven by a visionary individual. However, system change, like systems themselves, is a mosaic of many actions by many individuals, companies, governments, NGO's and others. And like a mosaic, the sum of these actions, and their proximity to each other, create the picture of system change. When viewed in isolation, any single piece in a mosaic may appear inconsequential. But each is nonetheless essential for the full picture to be realized.

A couple of years ago at this conference, one speaker noted that "transformation occurs incrementally." Indeed, when we look back on the history of human achievement, we can see that transformation is a result of many small improvements that build upon each other, punctuated occasionally by step changes in technology, beliefs or behavior.

The iPhone is often held up as a device that has transformed the way we live, but as was noted yesterday by Tony Fadell, the "father of the iPod" and currently CEO of Nest, it took seven years to get from the debut of the iPod to the debut of the iPhone. In between were many incremental improvements by Apple and by others. The iPod itself was an iteration of other portable digital music storage devices. 

Since I joined SustainAbility 11 years ago, I have seen -- and been a part of creating -- many corporate sustainability strategies. Those that have been most effective at driving change have a big idea -- a transformative change -- at their core. But they also drive and celebrate incremental improvement, not as a substitute for transformation, but as an essential element of it. Recently SustainAbility and GlobeScan released its annual Sustainability Leaders Survey. Unilever once again came out on top, followed by Patagonia, Interface, Walmart and GE.  Each company combines a compelling vision and robust strategy with strong performance and evidence of integration -- big ideas plus incremental improvements.

Over dinner on the first night of the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference, one of my tablemates made the statement that "distributed power generation will transform Africa," bringing some degree of prosperity to millions that currently are just surviving. A big idea, but right now, just an idea. Turning it into reality will require the commitment of governments, NGO's, companies and individuals, and many iterations of a solution.

We should all be working for system change. For some, that means thinking big thoughts about how the world can be transformed. For others, it means working on the next iteration that is a bit better than the last. Indeed, both are essential elements of the mosaic that makes up system change.

Stairway photo by Ikuni on Shutterstock.