Set an Outrageous Goal

Set an Outrageous Goal

If the meek are slated to inherit the earth, then small businesses with bold ideas will be the ones to save it for them.

That’s because the next round of environment-related innovation -- the one needed to address the new challenge of sustainable development --will require not just cleaning up operations or refining existing products and packaging (the hallmarks of environmental innovation during the past decade or so), but entirely new ways of meeting consumer needs while consuming significantly less resources and energy. (Some experts believe this must be done on a magnitude of a factor of four or more.)

The specific task for businesses is to "eco-innovate," i.e., to develop functional substitutes to existing products and services. Examples include voicemail as a substitute for answering machines; integrated pest management as a replacement for pesticides; even specially treated chewing gum as a substitute for toothpaste and brushes.

As these examples demonstrate, eco-innovation takes highly creative thinking and the ability to view one’s business or the problem to be solved from a new perspective.

Eco-innovators in the quest of breakthrough ideas can borrow a technique that I first learned at the Creative Problem Solving Institute, an annual confab of creativity experts from 43 countries hosted by the Creative Education Foundation: Set an Outrageous Goal. Outrageous goals are the kinds of goals that sound impossible to achieve, but when presented hypothetically for brainstorming purposes, represent an excellent way to quickly bypass incremental thinking in favor of ground-breaking thinking. DuPont and Xerox are two companies that understand the value of setting outrageous goals. DuPont has an environmental goal of "zero waste." Xerox’s environmental goal is "waste-free products from waster-free facilities."

To test the power of a setting an outrageous goal to stimulate creativity, consider a washing machine. About 95% of all the environmental impacts created by a washing machine during its lifetime occur during the use phase -- i.e., the water, the energy needed to heat it up, and the impacts of disposing of the waste water into the environment. To discover ways in which these impacts can be eliminated, ask: What would we do differently if we had to reduce the water and energy used during the lifetime of a washing machine by a full 100% and still meet our customers' needs? And let your mind’s wheels start turning.

Reducing such impacts by anything less than 100% yields such alternatives as horizontal-axis washing machines such as Maytag’s Neptune model, cold water detergents, "dry" washing machines that clean clothes in the dryer like Procter & Gamble’s new Dryel cleaning system, and detergent-less processes such as ultrasonic "micro-bubbles." These are all great solutions in and of themselves, but to achieve the full 100% reduction in water and energy – the groundbreaking solution – one must design clothes that don’t get dirty in the first place (and hope that the technology required does not pose too many environmental dilemmas of its own).

Aggressive Questions

The magic of setting an outrageous goal lies in the aggressiveness of the question. (Compare the ideas generated above to a tamer question like, What would we do differently if we wanted to reduce the impacts of a washing machine by 10% or 15%?) Furthermore, brainstorming with an outrageous goal of "zero impact" yields a spectrum of several new ideas, some of which may seem to be unlikely solutions now, but may prove possible later.

When I try these notions out on large corporations, many, of course, cringe. They ask, "What are we to do with our widget factories?" Some of the more enlightened large corporations now have future-oriented innovation or advanced technology groups, some of which are situated off the main corporate campus to ensure independence and encourage creativity.

But when it comes right down to it, small businesses have a big advantage over large corporations in taking advantage of opportunities to eco-innovate. Small businesses do not have long-standing investments in established technologies or infrastructure. And they can afford to patiently grow a new market from scratch. This all suggests a host of possibly outrageous new business opportunities for eco-minded entrepreneurs who know the right questions to ask.

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Jacquelyn Ottman is president of J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., a NYC-based marketing consulting firm that advises companies on how to develop and market environmentally sound products. She is the author of Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation, available from the GreenBiz Bookstore. This column is © J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., and is reprinted from In Business magazine, a GreenBiz News Affiliate.