Since 2010, GreenHouse principals led innovation projects with more than 50 partners in government, business, non-profits and academia. These efforts have resulted in more than a dozen new initiatives underway in countries around the world and has produced an original innovation model and methodology, now being taught in-depth  at the University of Southern California, in the first-ever doctorate in social innovation.

Norm, deviant and diffuse

Social innovation is very serious business, with profound human consequences. But it has been largely misinterpreted: as creativity, as an expression of noble character or as a pretense to teach business and entrepreneurial skills. In response, GreenHouse has developed and publicly released a foundational framework for social innovation – called Innovation Dynamics – grounded in both social science and empirical research over seven years of projects in the public, private, social and academic sectors.

At its core, social innovation involves three steps: revealing the social norm that holds the undesirable conditions in place; identifying or creating a deviant from that norm; and diffusing the deviance through a sufficient number and breadth of reference groups.

The methodology is being taught in universities – including in the first-ever professional doctorate in social innovation – and in the private sector, and is now available to the public.

Public practice

Increasingly, organizations tackling society’s most pressing problems are run by executives trained in business schools, where they receive no education related to social challenges, social dynamics or the social sector, generally. In response, GreenHouse helped design, develop and launch the nation’s first doctorate in management, leadership and social innovation – at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

The professional doctorate requires students to complete coursework in social and public sector leadership, social sector finance, public discourse, program design and evaluation and social innovation – predicated on GreenHouse’s original work in this area. Students are required to substantively address one of 12 grand challenges facing society, ranging from the human cost of climate change to the impact of stigma.

In its capacity as Innovator in Residence, GreenHouse also developed curricula and content, including casebooks and videos, which are used by faculty and students throughout the program.

Eureka, with rigor

Large corporations know they must innovative to survive. But they approach the process with much less structure and discipline than they do more routine functions like sales or IT.

With Exelon, the country’s largest energy company, GreenHouse raised the standard for corporate innovation, helping develop a repeatable process for group ideation – which we tested together around the country with groups of corporate executives. The experiment produced new, actionable insights into the role Exelon and other utilities could play in building a better electric grid.

From our final report: “Many experts claim that they can guide companies toward new ideas and ways of implementing them. But such interventions often wither and die after the consultant’s contract ends or the organization’s leadership changes. To truly thrive in today’s world, organizations need sustainable means of innovating that are woven into the culture of the organization itself.”

Our findings informed applications of our original methodology for social innovation in similar tests with executives at Coca-Cola, entrepreneurs at 10.10.10 and doctoral students at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

More broadly and more assertively

In 2014, GreenHouse was enlisted to be the first-ever Innovator in Residence at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work – the first-ever in a school of social work, the first ever in the social sciences and one of only a handful in any field in the U.S.

Here’s why we agreed: society desperately needs social workers. More precisely, society needs the kind of things social workers know about social context and human systems applied more broadly and more assertively.

The challenge was that social workers were ill-prepared to play that larger role. Overcoming the challenge required a culture change — in the field and in its professional education.

So far, so good. Recruited for this role by Dean Marilyn Flynn, our partnership with the school has been highly productive. Together, we have developed and launched the first-ever doctorate in social innovation, the first graduate program in nursing within a school of social work, and an award-winning masters fellowship in social innovation.

Asking for the impossible

Big, new ideas do not emerge from incrementalism and virtually never materialize in conventional business settings. That’s the central idea of “Dream On: The Art of Strategic Imagination,” a piece Howell Malham Jr. wrote for the business journal Leader to Leader.

“The imagination stage of strategic development is neither analysis nor synthesis – it is seeing and thinking in the subjunctive in order to discover that which has yet to be known: a pre-reality.

“Unsurprisingly, this is a fundamentally different process – different from  every other stage of development, and it requires different kinds of people in the room. Not planners and analysts, who come armed to the teeth with data, and who—to be fair—are not expected or required to imagine beyond the latest infographics on customers ‘most likely’ or ‘least likely.’

“Ask yourself: ‘Where and when does that kind of thinking happen now in my world?’ Odds are you’re investing in incremental innovation: refining existing principles, processes, and products, not transforming or, even bolder, transcending them. And that’s okay. New and improved dishwasher soap is a much safer bet than designing a universe where nothing ever gets dirty. But strategic imagination begins by asking for the impossible.”

New norms and practices

Incubating innovation within an established institution takes more than sticky notes and a special office. It requires understanding the organization’s social norms and carefully cultivating the right kind of deviance from them.

GreenHouse – invited by Akina – helped AmLaw 100 firm Akerman initiate that process.

Key leaders of Akerman had been part of Law 2023, in which we charted the future of the legal industry. Shortly thereafter, the firm launched the industry’s first R&D Council, with whom GreenHouse and Akina worked to develop new norms and practices.

“This effort will help us better anticipate and react to the rapid changes happening in the market while also serving as a catalyst for breakthrough thinking,” Akerman CEO Andrew Smulian said at the launch. “While the formation of Akerman’s R&D council may be pioneering today, we foresee a time in which research and development departments will be commonplace at law firms in order to adapt to an increasingly complex world.”

Open questions

There is a troubling disconnect between social innovation theory and practice. In response, GreenHouse is developing the first-ever casebook for social innovation practitioners – leveraging the pedagogy currently used by universities to train professionals in law, medicine and business. We’re drawing on the best aspects of this tradition but making a crucial change: the problems we’re tackling will not be closed cases, but open questions facing society.

The casebook will be predicated on the social norms approach to social innovation, and will include in-depth exploration of innovation related to 15 social challenges, including mental health, childhood obesity, sexual assault, animal maltreatment, decarceration, foster care, refugees, disaster preparedness, homelessness, social isolation, and access to the legal system.

The casebook will be introduced at the University of Southern California, in the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation.

Multinational norms

Multinational corporations are remarkably skilled at building and improving the mechanics of international markets, but are still learning how to untangle those markets’ social norms. GreenHouse – invited by Play Big – worked with global executives from Coca-Cola to dive deep into the shifting norms of juice consumption.

For example, juice is morphing in the minds of consumers from a drink option to an indication of care for one’s family. Using GreenHouse’s innovation methodology, Coca-Cola execs developed preliminary strategies for leveraging and capitalizing on that change.

GreenHouse’s methodology was developed over seven years of innovation projects in the private, public, social and academic sectors, predicated on an original framework, and tested in a variety of corporate settings, including Big Law and the nation’s largest utility.