Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Sustainable Innovation = A Culture of Smart Risk-Taking

As an executive coach and consultant I have the opportunity to meet with a variety of senior leaders from large and small organizations. Not surprisingly, one of the most pressing topics on all of their minds these days is innovation. Everyone is trying to figure out how to identify and commercialize the next big thing.

But beyond the next big thing today, they're all looking for sustainable innovation practices for tomorrow. One of the hottest topics now is figuring out how to build a predictable innovation infrastructure to identify and commercialize the next big thing on an ongoing basis. One-time innovation is a "single idea problem" which can be likened to finding a fish for the organization to eat now — sustainable innovation is a "capacity-building problem" which can be likened to teaching the organization to fish so it can continue to thrive now and in the future.

Regarding sustainable innovation, I've noticed a disturbing trend.

Successful sustainable innovation has 3 components—innovation processes (how do we get from ideation to commercialization?), innovation systems (what structures do we need to support us?), and an innovation culture (who do we need to be to get there?). All 3 components are important, but if you forced me to pick only one to foster innovation, I'd choose innovation culture—because it's the only one that drives innovation capacity. Process and systems do not. They are critically important, but they're enablers, not drivers.

Somehow a lot of leaders miss this fact. It's as if they think innovation is a technical challenge and the solution can be engineered with the right processes and systems. It can't be. More than anything, successful sustainable innovation is the result of senior leaders' beliefs and behaviors. Are they role modeling the smart risk-taking they want others to engage in? Are they supporting others to take risks?

If they're not, the best innovation processes and systems will never predictably produce solid and successful ideas because people will be too afraid to experiment and act.

Doug Sundheim is a leadership consultant, author, and speaker. He is currently working on a book on the topic of smart risk-taking. You can find him online at and follow him on twitter @DougSundheim.