Transforming Challenges & Inequality: Putting the ‘Why’ in Innovation

In 1979, Patricia Moore sat around a table of industrial designers discussing refrigerators. Not only was she the youngest person there, but she was the only woman. As they talked about her idea for a door handle that would be easier for older people to use as their dexterity dwindled, something she’d seen her grandparents struggle with, she was quickly dismissed, facing bias of her own.

Yet, like many who use challenges as a springboard for opportunity, learning, and growth, the experience fuelled Patricia to further investigate how to use design for inclusion and meeting different people’s needs. Over the next several years she went under cover as an 80 yr. old woman to better understand their challenges and how they were treated. She was repeatedly discriminated against as well as being severely beaten on one occasion, yet she continued her research. This led to some of the most important design breakthroughs of the century, shaping not only her industry, but numerous others as design thinking is brought into innovation of products, services, processes and even organizational structures.

This is a reminder of many of the unspoken assumptions that we make about innovation — who drives it, where it takes place, and what incentivizes it. It is also a reminder that some of the most important innovation stems from addressing challenges such as inequality and bias as well as being spurred by rapid change and disruption. This is a different and equally valid framing from one about innovation in abstract or driven by technology-though the two may overlap.

Being stretched and at times even shaken to our cores creates a much needed “why” and anchors innovation in purpose without which you can miss the mark or undertake innovation without the right team at hand. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. And, it may in part shed light on concerns people like physicist Safi Bahcall raises about the matrix of financial incentives and risk aversion trade offs within organizations and their hierarchies.

This brings us to the core question at the heart of transformative resilience and the accompanying mindset of Type Rs — the individuals, leaders, businesses, and communities that turn challenges into opportunity, innovation, and growth. In the face of adversity and change Type Rs ask, “What can I learn from this challenge and how can I use it to create the next iteration of myself, my leadership, organizational culture, or business while making a larger contribution or needed change in the world?”

In the face of adversity and change Type Rs ask, “What can I learn from this challenge and how can I use it to create the next iteration of myself, my leadership, organizational culture, or business while making a larger contribution or needed change in the world?”

On one hand this has the potential for significant impact in a world with a growing stress epidemic affecting quality of life and innovation abilities in individuals and leaders. But, it also has cumulative affects for businesses given that approximately 1 million employees miss work each day because of stress, which costs companies an average of $702 per employee each year, according to the The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. And there is a potential ripple effect for entire economies.

In recent research Accenture found that a mindset that enables innovation, the characteristics of which resemble those of Type Rs and the accompanying behaviors, would raise GDP by US$8 trillion by 2028 if it were increased by 10% in all countries. They also find that innovation is 6 times higher in cultures with greater equality — a significant finding at a time when we are seeing some forms of inequality grow and a resurgence of certain kinds of discrimination. This is not to mention that we have to find new ways to drive our economies, live, and work in the face of global challenges like climate change. Economic losses caused by climate-related disasters have soared by about two and a half times in the last 20 years. These types of disruptions are set to increase financial losses in coming decades not to mention losses in lives, health, and our natural environments.

That said, today there is a proliferation of band-aid solutions to the challenges, stress, and disruption we face. While tempting and expedient, these risk undermining individual employees, leaders, and ultimately the ability to deliver impactful products and services and be good global citizens. By focusing on these quick fix approaches we are likely to limit our ability for innovation, transformation, and impact.

Additionally, some of the most disruptive and stress-inducing forces in the workplace, supply chains, and broader communities stem from unaddressed inequalities whether those be gender, race, age or differential treatment of certain people or teams who perform different functions or whose professional standing is perceived in different ways. Think of things like MeToo in cases of inequality related misconduct.

Add to that workplace values not being aligned with the ‘purpose’ driven values of employees, especially women and Millennials, and you end up with disruptions like the recent tech employee walk-outs. But disruption also links to inequality in supply chains, whether those be intellectual, commodity, or production oriented. Think of the consumer boycotts linked to child labor in chocolate supply chains. It’s not enough to say, here are some productivity or some life-hack tools. Without combining these with more systemic thinking and broader skillsets you risk alienating staff or misgauging your strategic responses. And people have to be given a ‘why’ and deeper purpose.

I say this reflecting on experience across a wide spectrum of ‘business’ and with it sources of inequality, stress, and disruption as well as the positive side — transformative resilience and innovation. This includes working with people at the base of supply chains such as farmworkers and garment workers as well as working with some of the world’s most powerful leaders, institutions, and businesses across sectors.

So how do we use the immense challenges these inequities pose to create new mindsets, leadership, practices, services and products starting in our own organizations and traveling into our supply chains, the communities where our businesses operate, and in to the larger world?

First of all, we have to begin to see these challenges as opportunities for deep-seated and lasting change in our individual and shared mindsets, our organizational cultures, and modes of operating. Organizations that engage in these issues without lasting commitment and clear action may have their social license to operate challenged, their ethics questioned, or they may find themselves being disrupted whether from within or outside the organization.

For instance, a few years back I advised a large international organization on multiple occasions that I saw misalignment between their external values and internal actions in some key areas as it related to gender equality. In foresight and risk terms it was considered a ‘weak signal’ and was not heeded or didn’t reach the right people. A couple years later an unrelated scandal broke that in many respects drove at this issue of misalignment in a more delicate context — decision-making that did not prioritize gender equality in the face of sexual misconduct by staff.

It shook the organization to its core, particularly a large staff of purpose driven individuals, a large portion of them female especially those in non-management roles. It has hit the organization’s financial bottom line hard and they still face the possibility of government regulation. The organization is now undertaking a major process of innovation, investigating issues of culture, evaluating organizational structures, and how they deploy their programs to ensure better alignment and rebuild trust. That said, there are reasons to believe that an organization made up of talented and dedicated people such as these should be able to create positive next iterations of themselves.

These types of efforts mean having honest and at times difficult conversations about where we are, understanding power dynamics, and addressing outdated beliefs, behaviors, and systems. It means identifying what’s working along with where there are pockets of dysfunction. Various actors will also need the time and space to evaluate how their practices and habits reflect underlying mindsets, norms, and biases. We must maintain a Type R mindset through the growing pains of transforming challenges into innovation and growth — from having the status quo disrupted through to experimenting, identifying what works, and ultimately creating solutions that can be scaled up to create a new normal.

The first step is broadening our horizons both in terms of how we view challenges as well as our understanding of who and what drive innovation. We must move away from tinkering around the edges and a bouncing back mentality in the face of the growing disruption and 21st century challenges we face. Instead we must undertake an approach that will allow us to use inequity and the challenges we face as a springboard for finding appropriate responses, new solutions, and next iterations of ourselves to enable successful living and working in today’s realities.

Ama Marston is an entrepreneur and an internationally recognized strategy, leadership, and business-with-purpose expert. She has worked on five continents with leaders like Mary Robinson and Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, the UN, Oxford University, Fortune 500 and FTSE Companies, and various NGOs. Ama is the co-author of TYPE R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World, an Axiom business book award winner. She is also on the Advisory Board of the Social Innovation Association.