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Leaders: Don't be afraid to ask for help Add to ...

Regulators can often help. The United States Green Building Council created LEED certification as a way to advise and reward those creating sustainably-designed buildings. Meanwhile, for-profit companies are also getting in on the act. Porter and Kramer pointed to the GreenXchange, an online platform that aims to accelerate sustainable innovation by sharing intellectual property and resources. Partners include Nike, nGenera, Best Buy and Salesforce, all of which are individually concerned with their own bottom lines but realize the benefits to be generated from developing new practices that create more sustainably-minded businesses.

Be the platform

Some companies have already learned to look beyond the obvious, product-centric value chain to create platforms on which others can build, thus strengthening the host company. For example, Amazon, Apple and Google have created robust ecosystems in which to ensnare companies that might instead have been competitors.

Being a member of a robust ecosystem can pay off for participants, too. Zynga, a company whose value relies almost entirely on Facebook’s social platform, filed for its Initial Public Offering in December 2011. The company, maker of games such as Farmville and Words with Friends, was valued at $7-billion. These types of symbiotic relationships can be ways for executives to think about diversifying without having to bear the risk and cost of expansion alone.

Go straight to the source

The idea of embedding oneself in a problem becomes even more important as companies look to expand globally. Understanding a local culture intimately is the only way to innovate there effectively.

In 1990, Jerry Sternin moved with his family to Vietnam to work with Save the Children on a truly wicked problem: childhood malnutrition. Mr. Sternin and his team worked closely with residents in the Quong Xuong District, some four hours south of Hanoi, where 64 per cent of children under the age of three were malnourished. Applying a philosophy known as ‘positive deviance’, they stayed with the villagers and focused on those who were raising the healthiest children in order to learn what techniques were already working–and disperse these practices among the other villagers.

As Mr. Sternin wrote later, what residents did and what they said they did were often quite different. “This wasn’t the result of their being disingenuous, but rather, their not being conscious of all their actual practices.” Only by being there were Mr. Sternin and his team able to observe the problems first hand – and develop potential solutions. In the years since, they report an 80 per cent reduction in childhood malnutrition in Vietnamese communities.

In closing

Every organization has the capacity to attack the world’s wicked problems –or their own complicated, intractable challenges–by welcoming collaborators. After all, all of us are smarter than any one of us.

Our advice is to open the doors of your organization and discover what external contributors can offer you. Be sure to offer them something in return, frame your problem in a smart way to attract the right people, and pursue the tactics outlined herein that make the most sense for your company and your situation.

All of this is important because there is another truth at work here: tackling the wicked problems of our age is not optional. We will have to face up to them eventually–or we will pay the price for ignoring them.

Bansi Nagji is a senior partner at Monitor Group and leader of the firm’s global innovation practice. He can be reached at bansi_nagji@monitor.com. Helen Walters is a writer at Doblin, part of Monitor Group. The former editor of innovation and design at Bloomberg Businessweek, she can be reached at helen_walters@monitor.com.

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