Don’t fear the word ‘incremental’: Take small steps for big gains

Don’t fear the word ‘incremental’: Take small steps for big gains

[Editor’s note: This post is the first in a three-part series on sustainability innovation from the Network for Business Sustainability.]

Never has there been a more overused or abused term than “innovation,” except perhaps “sustainability.” At conferences, in books, online and in the news, business leaders hear that innovation (or sustainability) is the key to their company’s success. And yet for many business leaders, both terms seem to be elusive, abstract and unattainable ideals that sound good on paper but conflict with existing goals, resources or corporate cultures.

But here's the good news: First, innovation and sustainability aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, they reinforce each other. The easiest way to spur innovation in your organization is to set some challenging sustainable business goals, give your team a small amount of slack to tackle them and watch the creative ideas start rolling in.

Second, there are proven best practices for driving the innovations that make business more sustainable. At the Network for Business Sustainability (NBS), we’ve sifted through all the research on the subject, revealing a comprehensive list of strategies based on solid evidence. They’re available in our report, Innovating for Sustainability: A Guide for Executives. So stop listening to the latest opinion poll or “innovation guru” and check out what the research has to say.

Three Stages of Innovation

Our research team discovered that, when it comes to sustainable business, companies fit into one of three categories or stages:

  1. Operational optimization: doing the same things better
  2. Organizational transformation: doing good by doing new things
  3. Systems building: doing good by doing new things with others

Most businesses occupy stage one.

Stage one: Doing the same things better

Organizations in this stage typically aren’t looking to make radical innovations that completely change their business model. The CEO of Toyota isn’t going to shut down the assembly line and start a car-sharing co-op, for example. Instead, stage one companies can become more sustainable by doing the same thing, only better: better for the environment, better for society and better for the company itself. They achieve these improvements by making small, incremental changes.

Create a protected space or make minor tweaks

There are two ways to approach innovation in stage one. The first is to hive off a small part of your organization and create a space where innovators are unencumbered by bureaucratic corporate structures or assumptions about the types of materials you use or the product features you offer. In this space, environmental and social goals take precedence over the way things have “always been done.”

If that’s not an option, simply add sustainable goals into existing processes. Make small tweaks to your product development process or your facilities management that reduce environmental impacts or benefit the community. It’s not about rewriting your mission statement, but instead about changing current practices for the better.

And don’t be discouraged by the words “small” and “incremental.” There’s plenty of value to be gained in what we call the “organizational optimization” stage. For example, simply switching incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent or LED bulbs reduces most nonmanufacturers’ energy bills approximately 25 to 30 percent. Doesn’t sound innovative? Maybe you’re setting your standards for innovation too high.

Photo step by step to a higher level by Camilo Torres via Shutterstock.

What can your company do?

Our researchers confirmed 38 practices for successful innovation across the three stages. Some may seem obvious, but that’s good. It means research is validating what many managers have learned on the ground.

One such obvious -- but practical -- practice includes setting efficiency targets and policies, such as giving division managers the goal of cutting energy consumption 20 percent by the end of the year. Another is building environmental and social requirements into existing technical specs. In other words, deciding that products or raw materials must be sourced from renewable resources, made without child labor and recycled or reused of the end of their life -- for example -- and then writing those environmental and social specifications into the product-development process.

Find new partners, offer rewards

The research also confirms the benefits of partnering with experts at universities or technical institutes to fill knowledge gaps. Consider an incentive program that rewards employees for producing innovative ideas to improve your company’s environmental, safety or economic performance.

Case study: Life Technologies Corp.

Still doubt that baby steps can yield giant gains? Consider the example of Life Technologies Corp., which produces biotechnology tools. It partnered with Kimberly-Clarke, its largest supplier of difficult-to-recycle nitrile gloves, and national recycler TerraCycle to create a program that will ultimately divert 5 tons of gloves from the landfill each year and converts them into new plastic products.

By adopting a series of recycling, composting and waste-reduction initiatives, Life Technology’s Pleasanton, Calif., facility went from diverting 30 percent of its waste to 96 percent in a single year. In total, the company’s sustainability initiatives save it millions of dollars annually.

In business, as in life, it’s often many small, simple gradual tweaks -- like eating an extra serving of veggies each day -- that eventually add up to large, lasting change.

For more on the incremental practices that can help your company cut costs and benefit people and the environment, check out our report, Innovating for Sustainability.