Why 'aha' moments don't drive sustainability innovation

Can of paint labeled with the word "innovation"
ShutterstockJose Diez Bey
Innovation isn't always about painting in broad strokes.

“Innovation is starting to not only be embedded as part of an employee engagement strategy around sustainability but also is one of the biggest business benefits that comes from engaging employees around sustainability programs,” said Susan Hunt Stevens, founder and CEO of WeSpire, during a recent GreenBiz webinar on innovation in employee sustainability initiatives.

Innovation typically isn’t the product of some random “aha” moment, she said. Instead, it comes from a process that, if managed carefully, can engage employees, bring new opportunities, improve operations and create customer value. And employee-led innovation can catalyze positive change.

There’s a solid business benefit from engaging employees on corporate sustainability initiatives: If employees feel they are working towards a good cause, it can increase their productivity by up to 30 percent, according to a study by the Center for Economic Studies.

That’s why companies including Apple and Levi's are investing in employee and other stakeholder engagement programs across their operations. Some 73 percent of companies are engaging employees across their organization about corporate sustainability goals, according to a 2014 GreenBiz survey.

Technical versus organizational innovation

The term "innovation" gets thrown around a lot, but it’s important to differentiate between its technical and organizational forms. Technical innovation fits most people’s conception of the idea — savvy new gadgets or tools designed to solve a problem or address a need. As a society, we’ve done a pretty good job at advancing this form.

“Today’s technology would seem like magic to people 100 years ago,” said Daniel Aronson, founder of Valutus and sustainability consultant at Deloitte. “We have innovated so much better around technical innovation than organizational.”

In contrast, organizational innovations result from a shift in underlying organizational assumptions, are discontinuous from previous practice s,and provide new pathways to creating value.

"We don’t want just innovation around sustainability," said Aronson. "We want sustainability to be part of how the business operates — to be hardwired into the business’s innovation processes."

Avenues to catalytic change

We have a problem with the scale and scope of our progress, he added.

Even as the world faces myriad environmental and social sustainability challenges, only one out of five companies are “sufficiently ambitious” toward addressing them, Deloitte research found.

Aronson outlined four types of “catalytic change,” which includes intentional, inertial, incidental and visible change. Intentional change — companies deliberately taking an action to achieve a desired result — hogs most of the attention.

Aronson described intentional change using fitness as a metaphor: “If you want to get healthier, you join a gym.” Incidental change: “You want a dog, and so you get a dog, but having a dog causes you to walk more, which makes you healthier." Inertial change : “You go to a restaurant and it automatically gives you a smaller portion unless you ask for more, which is healthier." Visible change: "You order your favorite dish at a restaurant which recently remade its menu to be healthier, which makes you healthier."

"Innovations around those other kinds of catalytic change, that’s how we can generate the kind of speed and scale that we need to meet the goals in the time that we have,” said Aronson.

None of us is as innovative as all of us

“When you think about your employees in your company, very few of them are necessarily experts in one area,” said Hunt of WeSpre.

“But when you expose them to new ideas and new thoughts — particularly around sustainability — they are new to it and bring a fresh set of eyes and fresh set of lenses and fresh ideas as a result. Often that is where breakthrough innovation comes.”

Few employees are experts in every area, but soliciting their input into problems outside of their expertise can lead to new and innovative ideas, she added. And those who come up with the most disruptive breakthroughs aren’t those who are entrenched — it’s new people looking at new information from a different set of lenses.

But engaging different kinds of employees on sustainability isn’t always easy, which demands organizational innovation by executives.

Kohler, for example, fostered collaboration and conversation sessions among small groups and employees who they pulled off of the manufacturing floor. During these sessions, employees ideated about how the company could improve sustainability. Besides generating fresh idea, Hunt said the employees felt listened to.

Executives also may need to think differently about how they approach millennial employees, because younger, tech-savvy employees expect an “app” or some kind of tool to generate rapid or real-time feedback, Hunt said. And there’s evidence that millennials are more comfortable agitating for change — sharing ideas with each other and expecting leadership to listen — potentially easing organizational change in the future.

Tools for organizational change

"It’s really important to have a structure and use tools to catalyze change itself,” said Aronson. These tools can help kick employees out of their "box" and into new, innovation-friendly territory.

One helpful tool is metaphorical thinking, said Aronson. Questions such as “How would someone else solve this problem?” or applying ecosystems thinking to the problem can generate a solution.

It’s also important to give employees a platform — technological or structural — to create a process for evaluating ideas and have the infrastructure in place to go after them.

"Innovation forces us to really think differently about the way we do things,” said Hunt. “The challenge is how we create that broad awareness and capture ideas."

Organizations often misstep by using anonymous suggestion boxes as a mechanism for soliciting employee feedback, said Hunt. That’s because employee ideas often never are heard — and even when they are, employees rarely know it. If the ultimate goal is to create a culture of organizational change, there needs to be an infrastructure of innovation, in which employees know that their ideas are valued — even if every idea doesn’t get implemented.

Creating a ‘sense of urgency’ to solve customer pains

Creating a sense of urgency in employees to address customer “pains” is critical to unlocking employee innovation, said Shanker Sahai, product innovation catalyst at Vistaprint.

“How we can approach and teach these skills to the employees that when they are building the solution, they are able to approach it in a manner that the leadership has a sense of urgency that this is important, and it also engages the employee to innovate more,” Sahai said.

Open communication between employees and customers is important, and organizations should keep in mind “customer voice” when innovating into the next product.

“If you are able to have this channel between employees and customers, they are reminded of why they joined the company and to sustain them in the company itself,” he said.

Internal hackathons, innovation projects and giving employees paid time to focus on pet projects is a good way to unlock new ideas while also reinforcing employees’ sense of purpose. Likewise, it's key to help erase employee’s fear of failure.

“It’s okay to fail fast,” said Sahai. “If you fail fast and iterate quickly, it shows that you always have the customer voice.”