Can Business Really Step Up to Help Solve Global Problems?
Can Business Really Step Up to Help Solve Global Problems?
This article series, produced in partnership with Business Fights Poverty, explores how global companies are stepping up to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and includes practical ideas and guidance for business leaders of today.

We are past, ‘Should we?’ The question now is, ‘How?’” At a recent event in New York, New York, Mehmood Kahn, chief scientific officer at Pepsico, framed the challenge on the mind of many company leaders who have committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In other words, the ambition is set, but how will companies deliver?

The 17 SDGs with their 169 associated, ambitious targets for 2030—on issues such as inequality, climate change, migration, and resource scarcity—effectively express the global development agenda. And these issues feature prominently on the radar of the business community. Forward-looking companies are approaching the SDGs from the perspective of opportunity. And the opportunity is substantial: Sustainable business models could open economic opportunities worth $12 trillion and increase employment by up to 380 million jobs by 2030.

To unlock this potential, businesses are using circular, de-carbonized, collaborative, and inclusive business models—to name just a few—to connect commercial benefit to societal impact. These models are complex and require new mindsets and competencies, but they offer promising paths forward. And if you look closely, you will find intrapreneurs—people driving change from the inside out—at the heart of these innovations, shaping the future of business.

(kyoshino/iStock)

According to Gifford Pinchot III, who coined the term in 1978, intrapreneurs are “dreamers who do.” They bring much-needed entrepreneurial capacity to large, systematized organizations. Yet there are many barriers to intrapreneurship, including job-related, strategic, and cultural constraints. To help equip intrapreneurs with the tools they need to scale social and sustainable innovation, we are exploring how company leadership can create more enabling environments for enterprising teams to drive transformative innovation from within.

Sustainable business models could open economic opportunities worth $12 trillion and increase employment by up to 380 million jobs by 2030.

Over a six-month period this year, our organizations—Business Fights Poverty and the League of Intrapreneurs—engaged company leaders, intrapreneurs, and social innovation practitioners in a series of international workshops, online learning events, and in-depth interviews. Our research uncovered increased company investment in social innovation, as well as intrapreneurship incubators, accelerators, and funds. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, we also observed the limits of these approaches without a wider enabling environment. Like social entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs need a healthy ecosystem to survive and thrive. Companies that take a holistic approach and invest across four main areas—purpose, people, power and pipeline—are more likely to see social innovation not only spark, but scale.

 

Purpose Beyond Profit

Companies that have a clearly articulated purpose that references social impact automatically create a more-supportive environment for social intrapreneurs. Officially recognizing purpose beyond profit enables social innovators to link their new ideas to company priorities, and illustrate how their efforts support broader definitions of value and purpose. This, in turn, makes it easier to secure internal buy-in. 

One company strongly guided by purpose is the French food company, Danone. Founder Isaac Carasso started the company in 1919 with the aim of providing health-promoting food to children with intestinal infections. Danone has stayed true to its mission of bringing health through food to as many people as possible for nearly a century. To remain relevant in today’s rapidly changing market, the company has evolved its purpose to focus on the “food revolution”—consumer demand for local, ethically produced, and nutritious food. This purpose is unlocking social innovation across the organization, including in its supply chain, through projects such as sustainable strawberry farming in Morocco.

But having a clearly articulated and well-communicated purpose is only part of the solution. Companies also need to “walk the talk” by translating purpose into practical actions that can guide everyday decision-making and serve as effective guard-rails for blue-sky thinking without being overly prescriptive.

For example, Unilever facilitates internal Purpose Studio workshops to help its brands link to the company’s broader purpose. Salesforce embeds purpose into management processes such as its V2MOM framework, a company-wide guide that includes questions about values and impact that it applies to every new project. And Mars is creating a mutual Profit and Loss statement to measure societal capital alongside financial return. These approaches may not be sexy, but they are essential to creating conditions for social innovation to thrive.

 

People as Change Agents

A growing number of companies collaborate with social entrepreneurs, sometimes absorbing their entire businesses, to “acquire” a sense of purpose. But this external focus risks overlooking a huge internal asset. Research among hundreds of leading companies revealed that employees are one of the biggest sources of innovation. Companies can optimize this resource by building capabilities for innovation, and developing rewards and incentives that encourage sideways-thinking and experimentation. As part of this, companies should ensure that performance metrics incentivize innovation. Boehringer Ingelheim achieves this by baking its AAI principles—agility, accountability, and intrapreneurship—into every employee’s personal performance plan.

Research among hundreds of leading companies revealed that employees are one of the biggest sources of innovation.

Companies also need to revisit recruitment and training programs to ensure that they are attracting and retaining people with relevant competencies, including systems thinking, creativity, and collaboration. Travis Fabian, solutions engineer and innovation leader at Salesforce.org, puts it this way: “Innovation opportunities for social good attracts top talent—this is our clear business case.”

 

The Power of We

Power, in its various forms, is a major determinant of an intrapreneur’s success. When power is centralized or contained within small groups, or when departments don’t effectively collaborate, it limits opportunities for new ideas and divergent thinking. “The power of we” refers to an organizing approach that decentralizes power in organizations and fosters new types of collaboration across traditional boundaries.

Shifting power and culture boils down to company leaders and their willingness to “create space” for intrapreneurship—not only for the CEO, but also for enlightened line managers or senior executives who act as catalyzers, project sponsors, and champions. Leaders can create space for innovation through more-fluid job descriptions and work discretion. Rather than prescribing how people do their work, managers at companies like Salesforce, IKEA, and Danone are hiring people and asking them to create value, and then giving them space to do it.

Leaders can create space for innovation through more-fluid job descriptions and work discretion.

Another organizational strategy is to establish flatter hierarchical power structures. Growing numbers of companies are subscribing to the notion that distributing power throughout the organization will help prompt employees’ creativity and stimulate more innovation. This is evident in the growing “holacracy” movement, which proposes a deeply decentralized management approach.  The new CEO of Novartis, Vas Narasimhan, calls this shift away from a hierarchical, know-it-all culture to a learning, empowering, and inspiring culture: “unbossing” the company.

 

A Generative Pipeline

If company leaders want to increase intrapreneurial innovation, they need to develop programs and processes explicitly designed to generate, incubate, and scale ideas. Companies such as Barclays and Pearson, for example, have dedicated social innovation incubators. They invest in mentoring and network development, and offer funding. To succeed, however, they have found that they need to actively involve business-unit leads in the governance and prototyping of projects to build bridges for integrating back into the business. 

Good ideas are not the sole domain of MBAs or designers; they can come from any part of your organization, especially from those closest to your customers, markets, and issue areas.

When establishing a pipeline process, it is important to remember that good ideas are not the sole domain of MBAs or designers; they can come from any part of your organization, especially from those closest to your customers, markets, and issue areas. CEMEX’s Shared Value and Innovation team, for example, went on a global tour to upskill, train, and share social innovation resources with their global business, encouraging employees to pitch in their social innovation ideas. “In six months, we visited 58 cement plants in 21 countries and engaged with more than 1,000 employees [who pitched] more than 500 ideas,” explains Mario Elias Gonzalez Lupercio, head of shared value and innovation at CEMEX. “Our aim was to co-create this strategy together, from the bottom up, by gaining buy-in and to shifting mindsets on the ground. Today, we are more likely to create sustainable value through social innovation than ever before.”

If traversing the globe is too daunting a proposition, consider Adobe’s approach of creating innovation “in a box.” Its KickBox tool contains everything Abode considers necessary to kickstart innovation: money, a checklist of actions, scorecards, frameworks, exercises, caffeine, and sugar.

If we are to make real progress against the SDGs, we need “all hands on deck.” Part of answering the question “How?” is finding the “dreamers who do” inside our organizations and creating healthy ecosystems for them to flourish.