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Innovation: Knickers in a Twist

July 22, 2010

“Oh, the world! The world! All the world knows the world of trouble the world is eternally occasioning!” – from Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York by Washington Irving

Newsweek ran an interesting piece recently titled “A Green Retreat,” stating that environmental issues have fallen greatly in the public’s concern over the past couple of years. It was interesting, but not necessarily surprising, given the unprecedented pressures we have faced over that period. It included reasons why this was the case, including the fact that environmental issues were just one priority out of many that competed for society’s attention and funding. I believe this is an important point.

We have many priorities that present risk in one form or another – and always will. And, so, we prioritize based upon the resources and bandwidth we have available. We react, rather than proactively address. This prioritization, or avoidance in some cases, is often the method used when we are facing “the world of trouble the world is eternally occasioning.”

In 1809, Washington Irving (aka Diedrich Knickerbocker) recognized this and satirized that adversity and disaster brought everlasting fame when he stated, “Pompeii and Herculaneum might have passed into oblivion, with a herd of their contemporaries, had they not been fortunately overwhelmed by a volcano.”

But what if we, in 2010, focused upon innovative opportunities in addressing environmental issues, rather than continually harping only on the risks, often stated as being overwhelming and possibly society-ending? What if we proactively sought the opportunities, rather than shirked the risks? What if we actually worked to find solutions to the causes, rather than simply trying to explain and address the effects?

That’s the safe, firm, high ground that businesses can find to help secure their footing by taking proactive, concrete actions to have environmental stewardship contribute to their goals. GE has done it with ecomagination. Wal-Mart is doing it. Proctor & Gamble is too with products like Tide Cold Water. If they had continued to focus only upon risks rather than embrace innovative opportunities, they would still be in a mode of environmental compliance only.

Of course, there is a downside to embracing innovative opportunities – it might not garner the attention of future historians (or satirists) who would exalt our “greatness,” as Knickerbocker talked of it: “Great nations resemble great men in this particular, their greatness is seldom known until they get in trouble.”

I don’t know about you, but I think we should skip Knickerbocker’s satirical form of greatness… effectiveness and success would work, though.

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