ATD Blog

Sustainable Innovation: How to Stay Ahead of the Curve

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

In a world of ongoing unpredictability and disruption, the challenge for businesses and working professionals isn’t to simply find new ways to innovate and stay relevant. Instead, the challenge is to create solutions that help us successfully innovate on a consistent basis. Enter sustainable innovation.  

A Simple Definition 

Sustainable innovation is putting in place a maintainable framework that brings to the forefront the full range of insights and capabilities of your workforce—so they can easily tackle changing business environments. Leaders may be surprised to note, however, that creating sustainable innovation requires fundamentally rethinking corporate culture. 

Creating a framework for sustainable innovation often necessitates a radical change in mindset from traditional management models. Indeed, providing employees the latitude to prototype new approaches and assume informal leadership roles hasn't been a historical priority for most organizations. But in today's increasingly volatile and disruptive business world, the need for growing empowerment—and the changes in operational thinking this brings—is essential. 

This isn’t news, though. A 2011 IBM Research study, Making Change Work, found that day-to-day operations no longer fell into static or predictable patterns. In their words, “Continuous change is the new normal.” Moreover, researchers also found that leading innovators manage change up to 10 times more effectively than those less skilled at adapting to disruptive environments. Clearly, our ability to manage the supposedly "unmanageable" has a huge impact on our enterprise's potential. 


The message is clear: The more we create a corporate culture that’s agile and adaptable to change, the more we put ourselves in a position to succeed. What’s more, organizations that are empowering employees to speak up, take decisive action, and change strategies in time with changing environments will increasingly dominate in the field of business. 

The beauty of sustainable innovation is that our businesses don't have to “Think Big.” Organizations can start by making small changes to their culture and processes. Remember that evolutionary change, and slight shifts in thinking, can be every bit as powerful as revolutionary change. In fact, the reason so many business are striving to achieve sustainable innovation is that it only takes one person—and one idea—to transform the shape of an enterprise. 

Case in Point 


Just a few years ago, unexpected weather delays and missed flight connections would have left millions of United Airlines passengers stranded. Hundreds of employees and hours of calls were required to get them back on track. Then, a passenger asked a customer service rep a simple question: If you knew I'd be late, why couldn't you have just rerouted me in advance? Today, having brought the suggestion to management's attention, an automated rebooking system tracks delays and cancellations and reroutes passengers to their end destination in seconds—while they're still in flight. 

Likewise, at online lodging service AirBNB, workers are encouraged to ship new features on day one. A designer who changed one icon from a star to a heart increased customer engagement by 30 percent and inspired the creation of a "Wish List" product. 

And at FedEx, which has 330,000 employees, a 40-person team is charged with driving game-changing innovations. Because of all the innovation single individuals can produce, leaders are doing everything they can to incite employees to speak up, take action, and routinely reconsider how they do business and create value for the organization. 

Bottom Line 

Achieving sustainable innovation isn't about having more resources; it's about being more resourceful. Innovation is not about being a genius; it's about being ingenious. The good news is that more organizations are waking up and realizing that the less they ask employees to think like employees and the more ask them to think like owners and entrepreneurs, their businesses will constantly be able to vault ahead of rivals and succeed on a consistent basis.

About the Author

Scott Steinberg is a bestselling expert on leadership and innovation, an award-winning professional speaker, and the author of Make Change Work for You: 10 Ways to Future-Proof Yourself, Fearlessly Innovate, and Succeed Despite Uncertainty. Visit his website at

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