Elon Musk may be worth the $56 billion payout he is asking for to lead Tesla into the future, or maybe not. Time will tell. But one thing is clear: No other business leader has yet captured quite so dramatically the exponential growth opportunities awaiting those who work out how to solve the future’s most-pressing challenges.
What’s important here is that Musk’s ambition to run auto goliath General Motors off the road no longer seems outlandish. The impossible, as they say, is increasingly seen as the inevitable.
Why? Well, capitalism is undergoing one of its periodic waves of creative destruction and the winners–like the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Gates before them–stand to inherit, if not the Earth, certainly a huge slice of future markets.
We decided to take a closer look. With the backing of the world’s biggest sustainable business platform, the UN’s 10,000-company Global Compact and the Generation Foundation, we visited and interrogated some of the most disruptive innovators in the world. In parallel, we also spoke to some of the mainstream CEOs trying to follow suit.
The Breakthrough Mindset
Hundreds of CEOs and other business leaders have already signed up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals since they were launched in 2015. And, at a time when political leadership is flagging, well done them. But most of these leaders assume that all they have to do is a little more of what they were doing already, a little faster and a little more inclusively.
Wrong. Incremental approaches to problems like global poverty, global hunger, and global warming are certainly helpful, and should be appreciated for what they are. But the Global Goals (as they are also known) are exponential goals. Take the first 2 goals, out of 17. They are “No Poverty” and “Zero Hunger.” By 2030.
Try delivering those goals incrementally. As Banny Banerjee, director of Stanford’s ChangeLabs, puts it, “you cannot solve exponential problems with linear solutions.”
In 2016, on a mission to explore how exponential mindsets needed to bridge this gap, we visited the meccas of moonshot thinking in California. In Los Angeles, we met with the XPRIZE Foundation, while in San Francisco and Mountain View we dropped in on Google’s ‘X’ facility and Singularity University.
As we work to distil what we have discovered in coevolving our Project Breakthrough initiative with the UN Global Compact we have begun to synthesize our insights from numerous filmed interviews into a series of video shorts.
And five potential keys to future success have elbowed their way to the front of the crowd—all part of what we have come to call the Breakthrough Mindset.
Key 1: Re-perceive challenges as opportunities
We view the Global Goals as a purchase order from the future, more specifically from the very different world of the 2030s. Last year, we worked alongside the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, which has valued markets associated with the Global Goals at a conservative $12 trillion a year by 2030.
Once business leaders, incumbent and insurgent alike, have identified these humungous market opportunities, the next four keys offer insight into how to seize them.
Key 2: 10X your ambitions
As long as factors such as population growth and climate change stick to exponential trajectories, then meeting the Global Goals will require exponential solutions.
Buoyed by the new possibilities opened up by progress in such technologies as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and the internet of everything, often referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, our interviewees call for business leaders and innovators to forgo preconceived notions of how a problem should be solved. Instead, they must create a culture that aims for 10-fold (or 10X) improvement.
Central to this approach is the notion that if we aim to boost performance by 1%, or even 10%, we will only achieve incremental change. If, instead, we go for breakthrough targets, 10X innovation, then we will have no option but to think outside the box.
Key 3: Love the problem, not the solution
As technology introduces new possibilities into a market, focusing on why you do something, not just on what you do, becomes critically important. That “why” is now commonly referred to as a company’s purpose, a term that has gone viral in corporate circles in recent years.
But, as Covestro CEO Patrick Thomas told us, “I see too many businesses that talk about their business as being making the products that they make—and that is very constraining.” This German materials company, which IPO’d out of Bayer in 2015, has embraced the Global Goals as the core of its business proposition. A key part of their sustainability approach is Carbon Productivity. The aim is to invest a shrinking carbon budget in ways that help deliver the Global Goals.
We are encouraged to “love the problem, not the solution,” ensuring that we don’t get fixated on just one possible solution to wicked problems, the one we happen to own. The advice here is to understand the market needs created by the problem and where tech progress is taking us–and then to join the dots.
Key 4: Invite others to join in
As we talked to the CEOs of some of the world’s most powerful companies, one message kept coming through loud and clear. Business must work out how to address the Global Goals in partnership with other businesses, with civil society organizations, and with governments.
Many more opportunities for innovation lie between companies than within their walls. No accident, then, the last of the Global Goals, number 17, spotlights the critical role and potential of partnerships.
Key 5: Embrace uncertainty
Optimizing existing strategies will only take us so far. By definition, no one can claim to be an expert in the unknown, so asking the right questions becomes way more important in time of radical change than being an expert.
As Grant Thornton CEO Sacha Romanovitch told us, “Leaders need to be really comfortable with ambiguity . . . with being the people who are actually asking the right questions rather than the people who feel they need to have all the right answers.”
And since you can’t be sure that your questions will immediately find the right answers, a tolerance for failure and experimentation becomes critical. Indeed, as XPRIZE CEO Marcus Shingles urged, “create a culture where you test it until it breaks. Learn from it. And from those learnings ameliorate to the next model and take it that much further.”
In our own work, we aim to dig deeper into the mindsets now needed to drive, shape, and steer the immense economic transformations that lie ahead of us. And in our next two blogs, we will launch two more videos, one on the most exciting “Breakthrough Technologies” considering how we can continue to evolve them in an era of increasingly powerful “techlash,” and one on the “Breakthrough Business Models” helping to bring those technologies to market.
John Elkington is cofounder and chief pollinator at Volans, a certified B Corporation. His most recent book is The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways to Connect Today’s Profits with Tomorrow’s Bottom Line, coauthored with former PUMA CEO and Chairman Jochen Zeitz.
Richard Johnson works alongside John at Volans, exploring the intersection between disruptive innovation and sustainability. The aim: to help business implement strategies that are good for people, good for the planet, and, not coincidentally, help boost both profits and long-term value.