No big idea – no matter how elegant, inspiring or right – can come to life by itself. Execution of big ideas requires strategy, which has become in recent years such a fuzzy, imprecise terms that most ideas are never animated.
We’ve tried to solve this problem, one that arises over and over again in our collaborations, by simply explaining what strategy is. Howell Malham Jr. wrote and illustrated our first book, I Have a Strategy (No You Don’t): The Illustrated Guide to Strategy, to make it crystal and entertainingly clear for anybody charged with implementing a big idea.
“There are worse crimes than using a word incorrectly, but not many,” Malham writes. “For me, there is nothing more important than understanding the words we use to communicate the thoughts and ideas we have – especially when we’re communicating with each other. It’s how civilization became, well, civilized.”
“One person may say tom-a-to, the other may say tom-ah-to – but woe if one of those people believe tomato means shoehorn. Or worse.”
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.
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.”
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.
Creativity in big corporations will die without the right social norms to sustain it. With design executives from Starbucks, Herman Miller, Johnson & Johnson, and the BBC, we isolated those norms and the structures that keep them healthy and alive.
Together, we identified four models by which corporations successfully nurture and protect creativity. One, for example, requires the corporation to leverage the natural cycle of reinvention and maximization.
From our report: “There are times when the people who are itching to develop a new product or plan must sit back and come up with tactics to harvest the benefits of what has already been built. Similarly, the folks responsible for the next earnings statement or report to the board need to remember that creative types always need some level of stimulus if they are to exercise their brilliance and bring about the next spring.
“Conversation between the maximizers and the reinventors is be made possible by a common understanding of the organization’s place in the natural cycle.”
Mobile clinics could play a transformative role in the health care system — and not just as roving emissaries for hospitals.
That was the conclusion we reached in our work with Harvard Medical School and its own mobile clinic, Family Van. We concluded that the real value of mobile clinics is the way they literally meet patients where they live, upending the social norms of medicine. This helps mobile clinics improve patients’ adherence to treatment and sense of agency in their own care – precious knowledge in a shifting health care system.
“Imagine that we could assign a very attentive graduate student to every mobile clinic” Andrew Benedict-Nelson said in a GOOD Magazine article about our work. “With enough data from a variety of settings, researchers could hypothetically identify the crucial ways in which these health workers help patients feel safe, empowered, and open to medical advice.”
The insights – also captured in an article in Harvard Medical School News – informed our work in the social determinants of health, including development of the graduate nursing program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
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.”
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.