Our first 20 Project Breakthrough interviews: what we’ve learned

We’ve spent the last nine months identifying and interviewing pioneers of what we call ‘Breakthrough’. Collectively, these pioneers embody a new approach to sustainability — one that stretches beyond incremental change towards exponential solutions.

So what have we learned from talking to them? What is it about the way they perceive, think and act that makes them special?

We’ve identified five characteristics that recur again and again in our conversations with Breakthrough pioneers:

1. They think long-term

Breakthrough leaders have an uncanny ability to look further ahead than others. While accepting that the future is uncertain, they have a strong enough sense of which direction the wind is blowing to align themselves with what they see as an inevitable future.

A good example of this is Francesco Starace, CEO of Enel, a multinational energy company that has pivoted away from fossil fuels to become one of the leading producers of clean energy.

Francesco Starace, CEO of Enel

Asked about Enel’s decarbonisation journey, Francesco articulates the rationale in a single illuminating sentence: ‘we don’t want to have an expiration date.’ Adopting this long-term perspective was the critical mindset shift that enabled Enel to transform.

When you take the long view, he explains, decarbonisation is a simple matter of risk mitigation:

‘10 years or 20 years down the road, there will not be an unsustainable utility because the market will have killed it. So if a utility wants to survive it has to be sustainable. There is no question about this. It’s obvious.’

2. They have the courage to self-disrupt

It’s one thing to recognise the need for transformation — quite another to actually let go of today’s value creation model and embrace disruption. As Marcus Shingles, CEO of XPRIZE, puts it, you have to ‘Uber yourself before you get Kodaked.’

Easier said than done. What makes it especially hard is that disrupting yourself means letting go of what’s worked in the past. ‘You have to kill your own darlings,’ says Yuri van Geest of Singularity University. Andrew McAfee, Co-Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, puts it in similarly stark terms: ‘we have a very clear choice: we can protect the future from the past, or we can protect the past from the future.’

At Covestro (formerly Bayer MaterialScience), continual reinvention is part of the company’s DNA. As CEO Patrick Thomas explains:

‘When we launched our company onto the Frankfurt stock exchange, the Handelsblatt magazine in Frankfurt announced us as a start-up company with 80 years of history, 16,000 employees and €12 billion of sales. Now that is a credit to how they see our company, because we still feel like a start-up company. We have been the leader in our field for 80 years, and yet the products are now totally different from what we were doing 80 years ago.’

Failure and rapid, iterative learning are a key part of this process of reinvention. As Marcus Shingles says, ‘Failure is meant to be not the opposite of success. It’s mean to define the true parameters of what real success could look like… if you’re not failing enough it means you haven’t reached those edges, you haven’t reached those parameters.’

3. They shoot for the moon

In their book Exponential Organizations, Salim Ismail, Michael Malone and Yuri van Geest argue that, to become an exponential organisation, you need a Massive Transformative Purpose, aka a moonshot. We couldn’t agree more.

Consider the following mission statements from some of our interviewees:

‘Our goal is to change the world through food… in the next 20 years we want to have a more positive impact than any other company on the planet.’

Josh Tetrick, CEO, Hampton Creek

‘Our first mission at Planet is to image the whole world every day and to make global change visible, accessible and actionable.’

Robbie Schingler, Co-Founder, Planet

‘To feed, clothe, house and keep over 7 billion people on this planet healthy in an efficient sustainable manner… My personal goal is to help a million entrepreneurs rise.’

Ryan Bethencourt, Programme Director, IndieBio

The hubris would seem absurd if these guys weren’t so deadly serious about it.

One thing that seems to come with this audacity is a profound sense of optimism. In fact, we are yet to come across a single Breakthrough innovator who does not strongly self-identify as an optimist.

The combination of audacity and optimism engenders a profound conviction that nothing’s impossible. In some cases, this conviction is deeply ingrained as a result of personal experience. Take Taavet Hinrikus, CEO of TransferWise, for example. For him, witnessing at an early age the transformation of his native Estonia — from backward outpost of the Soviet Union to highly innovative, modernised country — gave him a belief that everything is possible. ‘It taught me that if you really want to do something then you need to roll up your sleeves and just do it.’

Similarly, Josh Tetrick traces his willingness to take on the supposedly impossible back to childhood. ‘I think growing up, dreaming of playing in the NFL kind of did something to me. It made me want to reach for something and it developed a set of muscles — not physical muscles but mental muscles — that made me want to do something that’s impossible.’

For others, it’s a manifestation of a rock-solid sense of personal purpose and responsibility. They see a problem and they hold themselves personally accountable for addressing it.

Patagonia VP of Public Engagement, Rick Ridgeway’s story is indicative in this context:

‘For 30 years before I became a full-time employee at Patagonia, I was an adventurer, an explorer, a climber, a river runner. That was my passion — it still is — and that passion is rooted in a love for wild areas. And when you have that love and in your own lifetime you see those areas degrade, you see them bulldozed over, you see them fragmented by human development, you see them actually change and shift because of human-caused climate change — you’ve got to do something about it. If you’re a responsible human being you have to do something about saving those things that you love.’

Zipcar Co-Founder Robin Chase has a similarly strong sense of personal mission when it comes to addressing climate change: ‘if not me, who? Who is supposed to be doing this incredibly hard work?’

For still others, the “nothing’s impossible” mindset is simply a rational response to the rapid evolution of technology. As technologies advance exponentially, the limits of what’s possible are constantly being pushed back. You don’t need to be a ‘super-optimist’ like Peter Diamandis to conclude that today’s impossible may well be tomorrow’s possible.

4. They embrace openness, diversity and decentralisation

Being unsiloed in your thinking is a pre-requisite for Breakthrough innovation. “If we’d been industry insiders, we’d never have done it,” is a common refrain from those launching disruptive new enterprises.

Covestro’s experience of being involved in Solar Impulse — the first solar-powered plane to complete a round-the-world journey — is emblematic in this regard. Here’s CEO Patrick Thomas:

‘When we started working with [Solar Impulse], we were talking to aircraft manufacturing companies, none of whom would accept the challenge of building the airplane because they thought it was impossible. So we actually went to a boat building company, and they didn’t know it was impossible.’

Recognising the value of diversity of thought, Breakthrough pioneers typically champion two strategies (often they adopt both in combination):

(a) Build diverse teams and unsiloed organisational structures.

Josh Tetrick at Hampton Creek is a good example: ‘I love seeing our talented scientists and chefs work together. These people that normally wouldn’t come together in a typical company, coming together because they believe in something higher.’

(b) Leverage the wisdom of crowds. Decentralised networks trump centralised hierarchies.

Marcus Shingles of XPRIZE puts the case for crowdsourcing innovation very succinctly:

‘The argument for using the crowd that makes it a no-brainer for you is that everyone can agree that the smartest people in the world don’t work for your company.’

His colleague Zenia Tata explains how this informs XPRIZE’s approach to solving the world’s biggest challenges:

‘At XPRIZE we believe that innovators come from everywhere. You don’t have to be an expert or a specialist. More often than not, it’s the experts and specialists that tell you things cannot be done. At XPRIZE we believe that if you want to solve a problem then you put it out to the crowd. Put it out to innovators everywhere and you will find the most ingenious solutions to your problem.’

Covestro is another big believer in open innovation. Here’s Patrick Thomas again:

‘If you make a breakthrough in innovation you cannot keep it to yourself… To keep it to yourself runs the risk that it would die. You’ve got to use open innovation. It’s the only way to speed things up and engage more people. And the more people you engage, the more chance you have that the technology will be communicated, will survive, and will be extended to other applications even beyond your own business.’

Others, including Jessi Baker, Founder of Provenance, cite the open source software movement as inspiration:

‘I feel like the sustainability movement at the moment could learn a lot from the open source software movement. I think what’s exciting for me, coming from a software and engineering background, is seeing just quite how much of an amazing role data and shared data and collaboration could play in the future of sustainability. And how much this hasn’t been tapped into yet.’

5. They look after the whole system

If there were a golden rule for Breakthrough innovators, it would be this: don’t just focus on your product, or even just your customers; nurture the whole system.

Gary Cohen, Co-Founder and President of Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), embodies this better than anyone. Here’s how he describes the insight that led him to set up HCWH:

‘We said, “how are we going to turn this whole society around from its addiction to toxic chemicals if the very institution in the country devoted to healing is itself a major polluter?” We’ve got to transform healthcare. That was the turn that created Health Care Without Harm and moved me on this journey to try to transform the healthcare sector from being a major polluter to being a major force for healing and regeneration.’

While a sense of responsibility to and for the whole system is critical, it’s not necessarily sufficient. Just as important is a shift in perception — to see the world in terms of systems, flows and loops, rather than simply in terms of products, customers and linear relationships.

This shift in perception enables Breakthrough innovators to see abundance where others see scarcity, and opportunities where others see challenges.

As Rachel Botsman, a leading expert on the sharing economy explains:

‘Many of these [sharing economy] models look at broken systems of supply and demand… they look at how resources flow through the system and how this thinking can transform that model… At the core of most sharing economy ideas you have this idea of idling capacity. I define it as the untapped social economic and environmental value of assets. It’s the idea that now technology can unlock that value and it can redistribute it in different ways.’