Business Innovation: Where Is Your Moonshot?

September 21, 2012

Reading through most companies’ annual CSR and sustainability reports reveals a conservative, even timid picture of the current state of play. In the midst of upheaval in our economic system, fractured business models, and growing discontent with the consequences of global capitalism, the CSR world seems intent on playing “small ball.” As students of change know, whenever any system goes through major shock, the fainthearted hunker down but leaders seize the moment to transform their ways of operating.  Who are leaders in CSR today? Take a look at winners of the Harvard Business Review/McKinsey M-Prize for Management Innovation.

Management Moonshots

The idea behind the prize traces to Gary Hamel, a management professor and thought leader, who noted that while there were awards for innovations in engineering, technology, product development and such, there were none for innovations in management. Thinking big, he outlined a series of management “moonshots” to focus the attention and channel the energies of management innovators everywhere (Referencing President Kennedy’s audacious vision of an American moonshot in the 1960s that had excited a nation, mobilized talent and resources to the cause, and embodied the belief that anything is possible if you dream big, take risks, and have the will to succeed).

Thinking big, he outlined a series of management “moonshots,” referencing President Kennedy’s audacious vision of an American moonshot in the 1960s that had excited a nation.

When Harvard and McKinsey joined in, the M Prize competition was launched and invited innovators from business, NGOs, academe, etc. to submit their achievements under one of three themes: Management 2.0, Beyond Bureaucracy, and the one of interest here, the Long-Term Capitalism challenge.  Here’s the challenge posed for applicants in the latter category:

It’s time to radically revise the deeply-etched beliefs about what business is for, whose interests it serves, and how it creates value. We need a new form of capitalism for the 21st century. How can we accelerate the shift toward a capitalism that is profoundly principled, fundamentally patient, and socially accountable? Why shouldn’t managers and scholars commit to equally ambitious goals?

Companies Shooting for the Moon

There were over 145 contestants producing bold visions and solid accomplishments that point the way to reinventing capitalism.  A sampling of the corporate winners’ efforts includes:

Coca-Cola is addressing global water scarcity by creating a new dynamic with its bottlers and external partners, one that focuses on conserving local wetlands and improving water use efficiency, thus reducing waste and costs, and enhancing water resource management.

Panera Bread is tackling food “insecurity” in the United States through cafes where people can eat tasty, nutritious food in an uplifting environment and then pay whatever they can afford. Interestingly, each of these cafes has become self-sustaining.

Nike’s drive to design and produce stronger, lighter footwear has evolved into an even more ambitious agenda to embed long-term sustainability into the business. Many innovations for sustainable growth were created internally through cross-functional design teams operating out of the Corporate Responsibility function. Now Nike’s quest for innovation is migrating outward to reach suppliers, retailers, and the industry overall.

Natura, a Brazilian cosmetic company, has for years set the global benchmark for social innovation in its industry. Today its innovations in sustainable sourcing and product development are focused on preserving socio-biodiversity and valuing traditional knowledge and culture in Amazonia. The company’s mantra “bem estar bem” (Well-being/Being well) is its guide for innovation.

Corporate Social Innovation

A close reading of each the applications of the 24 finalists (including the 10 winners) reveals that most implemented what we’ve identified as the “6 steps to corporate social innovation”—e.g., creating a strong social vision for the company, engaging employees in innovation, promoting intrapreneurship and cross-functional collaboration, working with external partners, and so on. These innovators also had big ambitions and dreams—in effect playing “long ball.” A tip of the cap to each of them for “hitting it out of park.”

What is perhaps more uplifting is to look across all of the applicants. There in words and deeds are companies, NGOs, academics, and others enlarging and enriching the debate about the purposes of business, exploring and advocating for new models of capitalism, enacting multi-party and multi-sector collaborations, and pointing to the potential of social innovation writ large. This means that social innovation is not only a corporate or NGO, but truly a collective movement, and that its aims and reach could extend beyond addressing social problems to the reinvention of how we live and work together.

Now that sounds more like a moonshot!

So, to paraphrase the M-Prize challenge: Why shouldn’t you and your company commit to equally ambitious goals?

Social innovation is not only a corporate or NGO, but truly a collective movement.