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.

Staid no more

Industries are almost impossible to disrupt from the inside. Winners in the current system have way too much to lose, so it’s hard for them to imagine a vastly different environment or to abandon the strategies that made them successful in the first place. But radical disruption is inevitable –  even in the relatively staid, predictable business of practicing law.

That was our challenge in Law 2023, a year-long project in which we worked with a national team of top attorneys and legal-industry vendors to imagine the impact of sweeping economic, sociological and technological changes on their field. We guided the group as they reckoned with corporate and academic trend-watchers as well as authors, reporters, and designers who embrace disruption.

What emerged were seven rules we believe the winning law firms will follow in the next decade. For example, the winners will develop offerings that transcend jurisdiction.

“As the pace of globalization quickens, the nature of jurisdiction will change,” our report reads. “It’s not just that corporations and other institutions will need to navigate dozens or hundreds of sets of rules and regulations — they’ll also have a significantly greater need to choose among them. These clients will expect their counsel to keep up.”

“The opportunity: Firms will employ technologies to help them rapidly understand how a transaction might play out across all possible jurisdictions. Then, crucially, they’ll use their human ingenuity to craft offerings that transcend jurisdiction, maximizing clients’ freedom to act across the globe in real time. Top legal minds will help regulatory bodies and intergovernmental organizations figure out how to make sure everyone plays fair in this new arena.”

After releasing the report, we continued the work with two of our collaborators, who are launching the industry’s first real legal R&D effort.

Day one

Innovation is hard work, particularly inside organizations that aren’t equipped to have disruptive ideas or to bring them to life. But that work gets even harder when the instigator has no organizational authority.

That’s why we developed the COBI Fellows Program, a pilot at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work to prepare graduate students to lead innovation on day one of their careers.

In its first year, the program won the SAGE/CSWE Award for Innovative Teaching in Social Work Education. From the award announcement: The program “provides a framework for infusing innovative practices in organizations, and engages participants in an interactive experience designed to drive change in social service organizations.”

We developed the program in our capacity as Innovator in Residence, basing the curriculum on our original framework and methodology for social innovation.

Better than magic

higleyTom Higley is founder and CEO of 10.10.10, a platform to launch new entrepreneurial efforts to solve complex social challenges. He was previously the successful founder and CEO of Service Metrics and StillSecure. Before becoming an entrepreneur, Higley worked as an attorney and professional musician.

Higley said of our work, “GreenHouse’s insight and approach isn’t magic. It’s better than magic. They teach entrepreneurs how to think about wicked problems, complex systems that are home to the problems and insights that might afford the necessary leverage for creating a market-based solution. Who else does this? In our experience, nobody. And it is most certainly true that nobody does it better.”

We have worked with Mr. Higley on our effort with the U.S. State Department to re-design support for emerging democracies, and on 10.10.10 Health.

Focus for good


If focused, entrepreneurs can be a singular force for good. We have provided that focus for the first two years of a gathering called 10.10.10, at which 10 successful entrepreneurs come together for 10 days to start companies that address 10 profound social challenges.

“Ultimately the effect of this gathering is to make business more humane,” Andrew Benedict-Nelson said in an interview. “Specifically, it makes it more humane in relation to matters of sickness and life and death.”

In the first two years, 10.10.10 challenges have run the gamut – from toxic stress and childhood obesity to antibiotic resistance and health information security.

We were enlisted in this effort by Tom Higley, 10.10.10’s founder and a collaborator with us on our work on venture democracy. We launch the annual ten-day gathering with training in our original framework for social innovation.

More than markets

With their extensive training in social context and complex social dynamics, you might think that social workers were leaders in the burgeoning fields of social innovation and social entrepreneurship. But they’re not, as business and design schools have muscled them out.

We took this message to current and future social work academics in an effort to help them develop their own more socially-oriented approach to innovation.

“There’s a secret about social innovation,” Jeff Leitner told the Islandwood Roundtable on Innovation in Social Work. “The people who teach it, facilitate it and reward it don’t know anything about social systems and how they work. Worse, it doesn’t occur to them that a grounding in social systems is the least bit relevant.”

Unlike the innovation model commonly espoused in business schools, a social work version would look beyond markets and technology as methods of diffusion and would be grounded in legitimate understanding of human systems and institutions.

Developing a more legitimate model for social innovation is part of our work as Innovator in Residence at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, where we have helped launch the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation.

Flash mob for good



There are a handful of essential questions that every organization – certainly, every organization taking on social challenges – must answer regularly and honestly: Are we solving the right problem? Have we outlived our usefulness? Is it possible we’re pursuing the wrong core strategy?

But that’s much, much easier said than done. For one, the key actors in any successful organization have bought in to its strategy, necessarily giving up the objectivity required for rigorous self-examination. For two, tackling questions is dangerously disruptive, introducing discomfort and insecurity among staff, volunteers and boards of directors.

This is why GreenHouse principals launched Insight Labs as the first-ever philanthropic think tank. Between 2010 and 2014, we we enlisted more than 750 big thinkers from business, government, philanthropy, academia and the arts to tackle the foundational challenges facing 45 public, private and social-sector institutions.

The Labs became best known for our novel approach: invite a dozen or so subject matter experts to tackle a challenge in which they did not have expertise; keep the invite list secret from even the participants until the project was launched; and do most of the work in a three-hour flurry. It was most aptly described as “the love child of a think tank and flash mob for good.”

Our first effort was on behalf of what is now Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, whose nearly billion-dollar capital campaign had stalled in the wake of the 2008 recession. Together, we deconstructed the ground-breaking engagement strategy of Barack Obama’s first run for president, and mapped it to the potential, expanded role of children’s hospitals in society.

Over the next 60 months, we convened brain-trusts at the request of groups as diverse as NASA, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. State Department, the TED Conferences, Boeing and Starbucks. Our approach was explored in books and magazines, including Forbes and Fast Company.

Start here

Today, more people than ever before want to be social innovators. More than mere do-gooders, aspiring social innovators have the ambition to develop new solutions to problems that have bedeviled human beings for generations or millennia.

They’ve got the right attitude, but where should they start? With our friends from New York design consultancy Foossa, we’ve developed the answer.

In our Start Social Innovation workshop, we’ve blended the best of design thinking with our original social innovation methodology, Innovation Dynamics, to help everyone find their own best way to change the world. Whether the goal is to reinvent an old institution or develop the next great political movement, we provide the tools to target social norms that must  be transformed and help participants get to work right away.

“Innovation is what these dynamics encourage,” wrote one evangelist of our methods, “but my experience with using them in various settings has also been a practice in the construction of hope, the understanding of justice, and clearer pathways to impact. ‘Innovation’ has become a catch phrase that everyone is using but few people understand. If you are genuine in your desire to innovate, this is step one.”

Our collaboration with Foossa will also lead to a kit anyone can use to initiate social innovation with their own team.