In my last post, I introduced the advancing ways corporations are incorporating social responsibility into their business, from donations to product redesign. Today, I’ll dive deeper into the innovation success factors that drive both social and business impact.
The innovation toolbox is broad and deep, with a growing array of methods, technologies, and tools for bringing a diverse group of innovators to the table. Though the fields of business and social change can seem very different, the things that make business innovation successful can also drive positive social impact. Think of design strategy, systems thinking, community engagement, and advanced technologies. By integrating these elements into regular operations, companies can reframe social responsibility as an integral part of their business model, rather than something that happens alongside.
As an innovation catalyst for Cisco and our customers, Cisco CHILL has identified several key principles that are essential for innovating across industries. We can use these same principles to take on some of the world’s thorniest social problems:
Multi-party innovation is key to solving big, global problems. As James Moore pointed out more than 25 years ago, business innovation requires ecosystems to attract capital, partners, and suppliers. Ecosystems built for social innovation create the same network effect. The more complex and global the challenges we tackle, the more we must grow a network across company, industry, and sector lines. The more intractable the problem, the more difficult it is it create a process to collaborate, but it is the only way to ensure a sustainable, inclusive future.
“We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate),” wrote Ray Kurzweil in 2001. Large, global data networks and the onslaught of new technologies are providing new tools to power social impact innovation. Imagine AI-enabled chatbots to coordinate aid distribution. Or an IoT-powered urban infrastructure that saves energy and lives. By applying new technologies to challenging problems, we can discover new ways to address complex challenges.
In the Cisco CHILL innovation practice, we live by the principle of “massive inclusion”: everyone who might influence the success of a project is at the table. These are a project’s stakeholders. There are a lot of them and they don’t always agree! Leaders at the top of the organization must champion the company’s innovation agenda and involve stakeholders at every level from the very beginning of the design process (more on that below). This will help reduce friction internally and develop a culture of learning and trust. In the same way, a company’s agenda for community accountability and social responsibility must also be led from the highest levels so all employees and business functions can see how their work can affect real change.
Founder of modern management Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.” As with all business functions, determining the metrics for innovation success is important to achieving results. However, in both innovation and corporate social responsibility, the horizon can be long—it may be decades before we see impact. Innovators must carefully choose which indicators to track so we measure progress toward the end goal, not just activity for the sake of doing things.
Listening and Learning
Every step of the way, we must involve the people our initiatives will touch (often called “users” in the tech world). They too are stakeholders. It is crucial that the innovation process includes everyone and everything that a new technology or service will affect, positively or negatively.
This expansive view must extend from people whose jobs or lives might be impacted, all the way to the global natural systems of air, water, climate, and environmental health. We can’t do this sitting behind a screen in an office: we must get out of the building to listen and learn, and leave ourselves open to wherever the conversation takes us. Co-innovation through prototypes is a great way to develop empathy and understand the needs of people affected by our solutions. At CHILL, we try out our ideas by building a quick prototype designed to test a specific assumption in a real and tangible way. Then we listen to feedback, adjust our approach, and try it again.
After spending the first ten years of my career in nonprofit organizations, I transitioned to enterprise innovation because I believe that to achieve a better world we need to embrace business transformation. The timing couldn’t be better. More and more, companies see the integrated connection between good business and being an accountable champion for a more just world. They see that having a profitable business doesn’t have to come at the cost of over-extracted resources, exploited populations, and pushing the long-term effects onto future generations. As Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins said recently during a Fortune Global Forum panel, “I think we’re going to move to a place where you’re not going to talk about CSR (corporate social responsibility) anymore; you’re just going to talk about what you do as a company.”
Today, more organizations like Cisco partner with innovative startups to take on broad social challenges. They champion the work of human service agencies in our communities and design products and regenerative processes to improve the quality of life for those with the least access. Together, we are taking steps toward a more sustainable, healthy, and equitable future for everyone.