Skip to main content
Sustainable Innovation

Collaboration for Sustainable Innovation Challenges

Collaboration for Sustainable Innovation Challenges
Published: January 20, 2020
Share this article:

Take a moment to consider the really big issues your organization is trying to address.

Whether through values alignment or regulation, organizations are increasingly being required to take action in the face of large complex global challenges. Examples include: responses to carbon and waste regulations, shifting consumer or employee demands, and increased awareness of the impacts of supply chain policies on local communities and environments. The enormity of these challenges can be daunting to say the least, and frequently results in inertia or simply feeling ‘stuck’. Below is one easy strategy that you can try to help you get un-stuck.

Webber (1973), among others, described social planning challenges as ‘wicked problems’, a phrase that has been expanded to define the kinds of challenges described above, underlining their inherent difficulty. When working with people who are trying to tackle their organization’s response to some of these massive challenges, we observe a variety of reactions. These range from passive ‘ignore it and hope it goes away’ behavior, to overreliance on subject matter experts to ‘fix it’ for us, to rhetoric that oversimplifies a challenge in order for a solution to appear easy to attain and to elevate the individual’s significance.

We often experience these reactions in response to questions beginning with “what can I possibly do about…” and ending with “climate change/social inequities/biodiversity loss/refugee crises/etc”.

Grint (2008) describes how the need for action shifts away from individual command to a collaborative form of leadership as the complexity of the problem increases. There’s a reason why the last of the UN’s sustainable development goals is ‘#17 Partnership For The Goals’. We simply cannot succeed if we try to solve these challenges on our own.

So, here’s a suggestion:

Turn the “I” from the above question into “we”, so that it now reads, “what can we possibly do about…” Not only does this depressurize the role of any single individual, but it also begins to open up realistic possibilities for collaborative action.

Now, ask three very different people your re-framed question, choosing individuals that roughly fit into these categories:

  1. Someone within your organization who often has a different point of view to your own.
  2. Someone who works in the same industry but not in the same organization.
  3. Someone outside your industry whose opinion you respect.

Why these three people?

  1. A common trap we can fall into is to surround ourselves with like-minded people. Whilst this makes for a pleasant conversational experience, it lacks the diversity of perspective that is required to create new thinking for the most wicked of problems.
  2. In order to make meaningful and long-lasting progress with complex global challenges, the switch to collaboration from competition is essential. A classic example of this is how organizations shared solutions for replacing CFCs in propellent and refrigeration units for the greater purpose of ozone repair.
  3. To help access the broader systemic perspective, it is helpful to seek out those removed from the problem. We see the impact of this when we put diverse small action learning groups together to help solve others’ challenges.

Try out the question with the three people above and see if it helps you get unstuck. Remember that these problems are messy by nature, so your solution is likely also feel a bit messy at times. Keep seeking others’ perspectives to help inform your own and apply that knowledge to areas you can influence. Collaboration for wicked problems is key.

Scott Rose is VP Consulting at Impact Americas.



Rittel, Horst W. J.; Webber, Melvin M. (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning" (PDF)Policy Sciences4(2): 155–169. doi:10.1007/bf01405730

Grint, Keith. (2008). Wicked problems and clumsy solutions: The role of leadership. The New Public Leadership Challenge. 1. 169-186