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What Social Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Successful Businesses

I am inspired by FSG’s tagline, “Discovering better ways to solve social problems.” What I like most about this mantra is its nod to innovation à la discovering. It connotes a focused effort on exposing or focusing on something new. It stresses a commitment to "do more than give", to effect change and have impact that is sustainable, deliberate/targeted, measurable, replicable and adaptable. But, to effect change in that manner, social entrepreneurs need to go beyond discovery, and embrace the principles and practices of innovation as well. Where discovery exposes something new, innovation (by definition) productizes discoveries. Think about this subtle difference for a moment.

Is this an important nuance? Consider the competitive for-profit sector. Look at any successful company and without digging too deeply, you will find at least one instance of discovery and innovation. The company likely began with a creative idea (i.e., discovery), that was commercialized through the innovation process. Now consider a company that has sustained success over a long period of time, and you will likely find many examples of innovation, a mix of what are known as “BIG I” and Small i” innovations.

Being able to sustain innovation as an integral part of product design (and I use "product" loosely), is the competitive difference between the mildly and wildly successful organization.

Sustainable innovation focuses on continuous and ongoing improvement, and, more importantly looks at innovation from literally every angle and every aspect of every product. (Big I and Little I innovations mentioned earlier.) To appreciate the complexity and potential impact of sustainable innovation I encourage you to watch this short video. It provides a succinct definition of sustainable innovation using a simple shampoo bottle as an example. (Really, its worth watching.)

There is much to glean from this 3 minute video. I find it fascinating that using something as simple and mundane as a shampoo bottle, it makes clear the variety of impacts a product can have on societal issues, the complexity of its value chain, the myriad product features that should be explored/redefined, and the bottom line profit these all impact.

In the commercial sector, the ability to master sustainable innovation is a bedrock to long-term success. Innovate or perish; sustainably innovate and thrive. (Consider Apple, a company “with quarterly revenue growth of 83% and profit growth of 95%” even in this economic downturn – a company that continuously innovates – improving everything from design, functionality, features, packaging and social impact.)

In successful companies, sustainable innovation is something deliberately managed and addressed through various forms of knowledge management, innovation management, creative problem solving and product lifecycle management technology. The innovation process is deliberately practiced and monitored. It doesn’t come easy. It takes leadership and commitment. Indeed, as I explored in an earlier blog post, while most companies readily state that innovation is critical to success, few, in reality, do anything proactive about it. But for those that embrace it, success is nearly guaranteed.

Businesses thrive on innovation, but sustainable innovation is not idiosyncratic to for-profits. To achieve long term, measurable, managed and repetitive impact those seeking social change might consider taking a lesson from successful for-profit organizations and become comfortable with methodologies such as TRIZ, toolsets such as SCAMPER and technologies such as innovation management, and delve into sustainable innovation.