Innovation: how to teach old dogs new tricks

If innovation is to answer the big sustainability challenges we face, all of us need to be genuinely involved in making the change.

A sure-fire marketing trick to boost a flagging brand is to reformulate the product (a little) and then heavily promote it as “new”. Usually it works a treat. Next time you are watching commercial TV, just count the number of ads that plug “new” features.

The technique has been adopted with relish by politicians too – Bill Clinton successfully positioned himself as a New Democrat in the 1990s, while the German Social Democrats’ “Neue Mitte” and “New” Labour’s third way in the UK proved effective, at least for a while.  Modest changes, heavily promoted.

Behavioural scientists tell us that novelty is a powerful driver, something that appears hard-wired into how we humans strive to survive and evolve. Simply put, new things stimulate and attract us.

On the other hand, resistance to major or rapid change is another powerful feature of human behaviour traits. In marketing, the failure of New Coke is a text book case study of the dangers of changing things too much and too aggressively.

It seems we only like things a little bit new – which may explain why the scale of transformational change needed to address the huge global sustainability challenges is proving so hard to achieve.

In different ways our guest writers this month both address newness.  Sony’s Magdalena Wasowska says new ways of thinking are just as important as actual technological innovation. From We Impact in China, Joe Oliver says new social enterprise models offer a third way between traditional state corporations and purely private enterprise.

So what is the answer to this conundrum of us liking newness while resisting change?

One way forward lies in working together to find solutions. Sony’s One Planet Ideas, IBM’s online Innovation Jam brainstorm and Unilever’s Sustainable Living Lab are all recent examples of corporations using new technology to crowd-source innovative ideas through collaboration.

Kick the tyres to test the roadworthiness of most corporate sustainability strategies and you’ll find they largely depend on product or process innovation. Certainly most business growth strategies rely on fundamental reengineering if they are to be viable in a resource-limited world.

But transformation on this scale isn’t easy.  Indeed, as the saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Certainly, you increase the chances if those implicated are truly involved in developing and implementing the change.

Not so much “Be the change you want to see” (apologies, Mahatma Gandhi) as “Invent the change you want to be”.

This article first appeared in Coroprate Citizenship Briefing

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