Our planet is facing an existential crisis. Across the globe nearly every country is facing a range of social, economic, and environmental challenges including migration, terrorism, youth unemployment, droughts, famines, torrential rains, floods, obesity, depression, suicides, etc. Governments are not setup to address (let alone solve) these issues due to dogmatic mindsets and bureaucratic systems that do not encourage risk taking. Out of necessity, sustainable progress needs to be made an urgent priority, because the Earth is a living organism and not an infinite resource that can be taken for granted. Time is running out. Business as usual will not help.
The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement do signal a new era of opportunity in which companies must move from talk to action — by developing and deploying innovative business models that will be at the heart of tomorrow’s economy. But seriously, can business help to reshape the future of the planet when it’s sole purpose has been to maximize short term gain?
Where there is a will, there is a way!
The business case for change has been articulated by several thought leaders including renowned Harvard Professor Michael Porter for creating shared value, or Prof. Sisodia’s more holistic conscious capitalism approach. However, business executives must first authentically acknowledge that they have been a major contributor to these problems (sometimes unconsciously) and now must own the responsibility of creating sustainable solutions. CEO’s and corporate boards will need to find ways to constantly inspire themselves and their organizations (especially mid management) to create new socially conscious solutions that deliver on the triple bottom line — helping people, planet, and profits.
Regardless, the shift in behaviors and preferences of aspirational customers(millennials) has already shown that businesses must change in order to survive and/or thrive. Millennials are staying away from corporations that are not visibly involved in creating social good and do not have meaningful moral/ethical values.
The role of the social intrapreneur (corporate Jedi!)
From my experience of designing and managing Shell’s GameChanger social innovation program, I realized that novel ideas that might have a triple bottom line impact won’t necessarily come by hiring an external innovation consultant. It would be much easier to source these ideas from where it is least expected — from the “social intrapreneurs”. Social intrapreneurs are changemakers from within a large organization, who can see beyond the way the organization functions today, are aware of the strengths, limitations and potential opportunities and are passionate and creative to design sustainable, ethical solutions that will create a win-win for customers, the organization and the world.
Through the Shell GameChanger incubator, we invested in internally sourced ideas like the VSee telemedicine platform that connected western doctors with patients in hospitals in remote locations in Nigeria through a low-bandwidth video teleconferencing technology. We also deployed VSEE on a few offshore production rigs in Nigeria where Shell had operations, thus demonstrating direct value for the business.
My friend, Graham Simpson at GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) started a program that helps bring cheap, reliable health care into rural, developing areas, which lack electricity and water, and have inadequately trained healthcare staff. GSK is now developing simple, cheap, paper-based devices capable of diagnosing infections and saving millions of lives. Blake Mycoskie created TOMS Shoes, a company that matches every pair of shoes purchased with a new pair of shoes for a child in need.
There is no dearth of good ideas or social intrapreneurs. However, the key question is — are corporate innovation structures set up to find and empower these social intrapreneurs and the ideas that they can bring for solving sustainability challenges?
Unleash the social intrapreneur (corporate Jedi)
From my personal experience, in order to design for success, it is fundamental that a member of the C-suite (CEO and/or a member of the corporate board) will need to invest their personal time to drive the sustainability innovation agenda. They would need to create a “sustainability innovation” incubator that directly reports to them and the mandate to invest in novel concepts, take risks and assess ideas without pre-conceived judgements (that are usually based on untested assumptions). This will help avoid the innovation paradox pointed out by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen and Kellogg Professor Rob Wolcott.
In my humble opinion, social intrapreneurs mostly tend to keep their passion away from their day job for fear of being judged by their peers. So it is very important that the C-suite leader who manages this sustainability innovation agenda also “walks the talk” on sustainability and has earned the merit to lead. An “authentic” call to action from such a leader will inspire the social intrapreneurs within the organization to bring their passion to work and share their novel ideas.
The social intrapreneur is the corporate Jedi that holds the key to sustainability innovation and deliver on the triple bottom line. Empowering and nurturing this tribe will ensure an era of sustainability and all round prosperity. If this is done right, the potential legacy that CEO’s (and Boards) can leave behind is enormous — saving the planet!