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July 11, 2012      
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How To Promote Breakthrough Innovation

The imperative of putting business on a sustainable path not only requires innovative thinking but helps to foster it. This was a key theme of my panel at Sustainable Brands '12 last month, where leading brands, consultancies and agencies presented new research on the link between innovation and sustainability. Now Forum for the Future, a UK non-profit consultancy, has issued a report summarizing what it has learned from its clients' work about how organizations can promote "breakthrough innovations," defined as products or services that create new markets or shift existing ones while creating superior sustainability outcomes.
Forum for the Future makes three main recommendations: 1) have a balanced innovation portfolio that blends work on incremental innovation with activity that has the potential to become a real breakthrough; 2) embed the idea of breakthrough innovation throughout the organizational culture by articulating how sustainability issues affect the future success of the company, and vice versa; and 3) employ management structures that identify and support breakthrough innovation.

The report collects ten "management structures" that may (or may not) be applicable in various business contexts that can support breakthrough innovation. It lists pros and cons and suggestions on where these structures apply. In brief, they are:

  • Innovation time—granting people time to look for and develop new ideas. Google's practice of encouraging engineers to spend 20 percent of their time on projects they are passionate about is an exemplar.
  • Competitions—to encourage staff to submit ideas.
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