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IF11: A Look Behind Philips' Quest for Sustainable Innovation

<p>Five years ago, Philips gave Dorothea Seebode a mission: Find out how sustainability should work with the company's innovation strategy. It turned out to be a personal and a professional journey for the scientist.</p>

Five years ago, Philips gave Dorothea Seebode a mission: Find out how sustainability should work with the company's innovation strategy. It turned out to be a personal and a professional journey for the scientist.

As the newly minted senior director for Phiips Research, Seebode carried with her the lessons she learned while working on the company's evolving innovation strategy in Philips Lighting.

Her watershed moment there was the discovery that "it is very important when you are working on disruptive innovation to synchronize those activities with your own life," Seebode told GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower at the company's 2011 Innovation Forum. "Exploring disruptive innovation is about exploring the unknown and if you don't do this with your whole being, with your body, mind and soul, it won't work out."

If that sounds "kind of California," as Makower put it, it was a different experience for Seebode as well. "That wasn't my norm," she said. "I'm a scientist."

That holistic, whole-person involvement characterized Seebode's approach to her role in Philips Research. In her conversation with Makower, she told IF11 attendees about the key takeaways from her tenure in the post.

1. When you're exploring, leave your desk behind.

When Seebode was appointed to her position, the leaders of Philips Research told her, " 'You innovation, you know this company,' and they gave me the freedom to explore what sustainability means to innovation," she recalled.

Seebode took them at their word. "I traveled the world the first year," she said, to learn how people inside and outside the company viewed sustainability.

2. How you view sustainability depends largely on where you are.

Inside the company, thoughts about sustainability were "all about reporting, compliance and environmental policy," Seebode said. "Externally, people were demanding change."

In her travels, Seebode also learned that "outside the corporate world, I was seen as the big bad guy -- the double bad guy, because I was from a big business and from the north and the double good guys were the poor people in the south."

Global businesses from developed countries often were viewed as creators of sustainability problems that were visited upon the rest of the world.

3. Don't take the sustainability journey alone.

Collaboration is essential to getting the big picture on sustainability issues and understanding what your company can do address them while pursuing its own goals, according to Seebode, whose white paper "Sustainable Innovation" provides further details.

Philips soon saw the value in working commercial and NGO partners. "This is not something that anyone can do alone," Seebode told IF11 attendees.

Gaining multiple perspectives on sustainability issues enables companies  to realize there is not one standardized way to act in all regions," she added.

"Sustainability will bring about a new innovation paradigm -- as big as the transition from analog to digital," said Seebode. Her responses in a Q&A session offered further advice to companies that want to pursue sustainable innovation:

1. The journey should start two questions: What is it that you want to contribute? What are the strengths you have today that help you to do that?

2. The vision must be articulated and supported by people in top management who give people space to explore and select "disruptive innovators who dare" to make those explorations.

3. Translate findings into "every corporate language" so that all the units of a company -- for example R&D, marketing, human resources, all of which have their own version of business-speak -- understand the company's message on sustainable innovation.

4. Work on abstract concepts and concrete examples at the same time. "Because  some people understand bigger picture concepts and some only learn through going through steps," she said.

Before IF11, Seebode talked with me about Philips' legacy of innovation. Here is that article.

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