What Apple can teach us about gambling on innovation

What Apple can teach us about gambling on innovation

IPhone image by William Hook via Compfight cc.

When Steve Jobs first described his vision of the iPhone, he likely encountered incredulous looks and critical commentary along the lines of, "Sounds great, but no way can we do it and sell it."

Just because the iPhone technology did not exist at the time did not mean that it could not be imagined and ultimately invented. Just because Jobs did not have a case study of technical specifications and sales of such modules in particular markets did not mean that consumers would not like – or even love -- the iPhone.

Yet, when presented with a new idea, most of us enjoy being critics. Perhaps we think that it makes us appear serious-minded and pragmatic. Perhaps it is a reflex, just as when the doctor hits our knee with the little rubber hammer.

We also love innovation. And so we try to balance these two often competing approaches -- the critic and the supporter of innovation -- in our daily lives.

Unfortunately, when it comes to truly considering and advocating for sustainable business (not just eco-efficiency as John Ehrenfield recently described), most of us tend to veer in the direction of critic, rather than become the voice of the avid supporter of innovation. This dynamic is a problem. At best it is a speed bump, slowing down support for innovation. At worst, it is stalling desperately needed leapfrog thinking about reinventing business enterprises, products, services and even economies so that they are not depleting essential "green infrastructure" on which they rely, but do not (yet) recognize.

Most troubling for me, though, is the daily experience of others within sustainability organizations, who are also working to affect change in the private sector, who assert: "Where are the case examples? If companies in the industries that I work with have not done it, then I just can't sell it."

I have a moment of quiet when the conversation takes this turn. What is going on here? Have we become so focused on being taken seriously by mainstream business (which we are actually trying to influence to transform around sustainability thinking) that saying the audacious (but necessary) is no longer feasible? Companies are used to aspirational goals, as laid out in management cornerstone books such as "Built to Last." Why don't we leverage this common idea that "stretch goals" are good for our thinking and our work?

For me, the demands for case studies are particularly acute, as I work on strategies and approaches for companies to identify, avoid, mitigate and ideally eliminate impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services. This focus is so far from current reality that I fully understand why people need to re-gain their grounding in conversations by asking: "Where are your case studies?"

Of course, there are examples of companies that set net positive impact on biodiversity and ecosystem services goals, such as Rio Tinto and the Walt Disney Company have done. There are also focused "case-lets" of small scale applications in particular sites over specified timeframes. BSR reports have documented some of these case-lets and corporate descriptions of their work on ecosystem services, as have the Corporate EcoForum, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), TEEB for Business, the University of Cambridge's Natural Capital Leaders Platform and other organizations working on these issues.

But the reality is that the issues are relatively new for business and therefore we do not yet have multi-year, in-depth, detailed clear case studies of how, where and when companies have moved from a goal of "no net impact" (or even "net positive impact") on biodiversity and ecosystem services to realization of that goal.

While much of my work is indeed seeking to build out these multi-year, in-depth, detailed "how-to" clear case studies, many of us working on these issues are collaborating with colleagues around the world to hone the vision of pathways forward. These visions are so unbelievably audacious relative to today's practices that people scratch their heads and ask, "So where are the case studies?"

Isn't that what we have to do? Isn't that what Jobs' team did amidst all the questions about the iPhone idea? They surged forward. Interest in innovation won out, as did, of course, (previously undocumented) case studies of unprecedented sales.

For those who ask for the case studies for no net (or net positive) biodiversity and ecosystem services business models, products and services, perhaps the best answer can be: "What happened to our interest in innovation? What happened to the reality that just because robust case studies do not exist does not mean that it is not worthy of effort?"

Does it mean, just because we haven't done it yet, that we shouldn't strive for the seemingly impossible?  

And who knows? You may end up wildly successful in the face of people asking for the business case for innovating and bringing new products to market in the face of those who say, "It cannot be done. It is too complicated."

Designing new sustainable products, services and enterprises is complex, but many of us like a challenge. Climate scientists, biodiversity specialists and ecosystem ecologists are the first to tell you that we have a doozy of a challenge on our hands in the years ahead. Why not get a jump start on the innovation side of the game, such as innovating new services, products, business models and even economies? Begin to build and scale it.

Ignore that naysayer next to you who follows you around the office saying, "I can't sell it until you show me a business case I can believe." Remember that J.K. Rowling was rejected many times before someone saw some merit in "Harry Potter."

Innovations around sound products and services, as well as business models, can create their own gravitational pull -- as have the iPhone and "Harry Potter" -- and the business case then breaks ground and follows. It is not the other way around. We need aspirational thinking that can be applied. But just because it has not yet been fully applied does not mean that it cannot, and definitely does not mean that it should not be applied.

IPhone image by William Hook via Compfight cc.