It is 2023. We are well into what climate experts are calling the “decisive decade” and yet significant action and momentum is missing in most organizations around sustainability and Net Zero commitments. Even in companies that have made bold commitments for 2030 and beyond, sustainability hasn’t filtered into the daily decision-making processes of most product teams and middle management. There are a lot of nodding heads and acknowledgement that sustainability is a priority for the organization, but typically only small pockets of action.
Many organizations have a lot of energy and enthusiasm—mixed in with a large dose of hesitation in knowing how to get started. Bringing sustainability and Net Zero priorities into our daily work can feel like an extra job—not a simple ask of a workforce that is still recovering from the massive tumult, uncertainty and isolation of a global pandemic.
To work around some of these barriers, frog teams often piggyback on top of existing innovation processes that exist in organizations. Innovation around creating new products, services and experiences or improving existing ones can serve as a gateway for more radical transformation.
But there is a key difference in the way we approach this. We bring a regenerative mindset to our work, which involves asking the big questions early and often through any strategic design and development process. Download the Regenerative Compass and bring a new mindset to a challenge you’re facing.
A regenerative mindset goes beyond sustainability to consider how we can do more good for people and planet, not limiting ourselves to doing less harm. This mindset acknowledges the scale and complexity of the challenge ahead of us and yet sees this as an opportunity—as one of the greatest creative challenges of our lifetimes. It is a “maker” mindset that turns constraints and obstacles into a channel for creativity—building a radical and equitable vision for the future that is abundant and hopeful. This holistic mindset leads to better products, services and experiences, as well as more dynamic, sustainable and adaptive systems for our designs to live within.
Why is it important to start with mindset rather than method or metrics?
There are two key reasons. First, it is important that we don’t limit ourselves to incremental innovation. Most innovation efforts today are focused on the near term, measuring success by old paradigms of value that don’t go deep enough to consider systemic impacts.
Second, it is vital that we don’t limit ourselves by thinking about sustainability as purely a reducing carbon (and other greenhouse gases) emissions issue. Looking at the issue holistically to consider impact on people and planet is essential for meaningful climate action. Without this broader lens, sustainability is doomed to be seen as a cost or a regulatory obligation for the organization. Efforts will fall only to those individuals whose roles directly relate to creating (and therefore reducing) emissions. A regenerative mindset is essential to thinking beyond harm reduction and instead to exploring new, strategic opportunities that benefit the organization, society and the planet.
A Regenerative Compass
In my work as a strategy director at frog, I offer our clients a “Regenerative Compass” aimed at helping every person in an organization ask the big questions—to engage and participate in this larger movement for change.
Quite like a regular compass, we look at four directions as four ways to guide your innovation process and explore new opportunities.
Looking back: Interrogate Power
This direction involves asking questions about control. Who has it? Who doesn’t? We have inherited many power structures and biases from the past. If we ignore them, we risk unintentionally replicating them.
To reimagine anything, we must first be able to understand how our history has shaped the assumptions stitched into the social, financial and economic systems we all live within. Making these invisible factors visible usually involves asking questions. Whose voice has been missing from the room? How much agency do the people impacted by our work have in the decisions being made? How do we “design with” rather than “design for”?
Currently, organizations are learning to bring the voice of the customer into designing experiences and crafting business strategies. But we need to look broader than the voice of the customer. We need to look at the entire ecosystem and consider how to bring in the voices of more stakeholders. For example, in a program defining the long-term vision and brand strategy for a top global fashion school, frog defined how the school could differentiate itself through its focus on sustainability, diversity and inclusion. Our approach was highly collaborative, involving multiple co-creation sessions with a wide variety of stakeholders that included alumni, faculty and industry partners. But, crucially, we also took particular care to bring in the voices of underrepresented students to help shape the future vision.
Looking back towards power is also about looking at what might have been lost. What are the indigenous, traditional practices and ways of life that we can bring back into the field? Old practices that are uniquely suited to the needs of the moment can take us towards a regenerative future.
Another example of how frog brought this thinking to the table was a project to define the growth strategy of a leading garden supply brand. The focus of the project was to define how the client can lean into their challenger brand positioning and claim the whitespace of regenerative gardening that its competitors were largely ignoring. In defining the strategy, the frog team identified ways for the client to educate their customers on traditional, indigenous ways of caring for the land, no matter the size of their gardens.
Looking up: Reframe Scope
This direction is about raising our perspective and zooming out to see the problem at multiple levels.
We must move away from the traditional business approach of utilizing customer journey maps and service blueprints that center the business’s products, services and experiences. Although this may serve some of the visible and immediate needs of the business, this approach is too narrow in scope to see the systemic factors impacting user journey that might be at play. As an alternative, we can conduct systemic analysis, and use the “connection circles” approach to understand the state of the system—enabling us to spot where we can most effectively intervene. We can also use system analysis to identify the impact of our actions and interventions, particularly considering the effect of growth and scale on the system.
We used this approach on a recent program for a U.S.-based government-funded housing agency that was looking into increasing the rates of Black home ownership. To identify insights and concepts on the program, frog combined a bottom-up approach of qualitative research of Black homeowners and renters, with a top-down systemic analysis of the various barriers and feedback loops that make it harder for these families to own homes.
Another aspect of assessing scope to get the full picture of a problem is to understand the impact on non-human stakeholders. How will local flora and fauna be affected by a certain decision? What are the risks to the climate? How might shifting focus to planetary, environmental and other more-than-human needs unlock innovation?
Looking forward: Expand Time
This direction is about broadening the horizons that we consider for innovation.
Most innovation and business planning activities consider short time horizons anywhere from one to five years. The scale needed for effective climate action is usually incompatible with these short planning timeframes, and in doing this we tend to lose out on opportunities that can offer a more radical shift.
We often hear from clients that long-term planning isn’t practical because they want the work to be actionable and tangible. But we can thread the needle here by using approaches like Futurecasting and the Three Horizons Framework, giving teams the opportunity to immerse themselves in multiple possible futures. Once we imagine these future worlds and the role that we can play in them—without being restricted by practical constraints—then we can start to work our way backwards to the present day to define the tangible actions we can take towards bold future visions. This is the approach in frog’s long-term partnership strategy workshop with UNICEF and ARM.
Another key consideration when planning and working with longer time horizons is to create flexible and adaptive strategies and plans. Most strategies and roadmaps are linear, which give them a very short shelf life in a VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) world. In many of our scenario planning engagements, our teams use insights from their multi-factor analysis to create an adaptive roadmap that lays out different paths to take when certain threshold conditions are met.
Looking down: Reshape Capacity
This direction involves turning our gaze downwards at the roots that sustain us. These are the foundational systems and structures that help create the environments and enable the conditions in which change can happen.
This dimension of the work is often overlooked but I’m sure everyone has experienced or witnessed the “organ rejection” phenomenon of a well-thought-out strategy or initiative being rolled out in an organization, only for it to stutter and fizzle.
In many of our projects, we bring in our organization design lens, paying attention to how we can build capacity and capabilities in individuals and teams to prime them for change. We use our org design and regenerative transformation methodology to identify the key levers for change in creating an organizational culture that is dynamic, inclusive and prepared for the complex challenges we face in this century. We co-create actions and strategies with teams. This is key. Change has to be “done with” rather than “done to” for it to stick.
For example, we recently worked with a major automotive manufacturer to design an internal sustainability institute consisting of a core group of people who helped embed the company’s sustainability agenda. We created a set of flexible tools and frameworks the internal team of experts could use to collaborate with key decision makers in the organization—and that can grow and shift as environments and capacities change.
Strengthening our individual and collective capacity for change becomes even more important for work in the sustainability realm for two reasons. First, while most people in an organization might agree that sustainability and climate are important, we might find that there is a lot of understandable skepticism and pessimism in the room that can get in the way of people engaging in the work proactively. Second, this work is a marathon—not a sprint. We need to find ways to sustain ourselves and our teams without burning out or losing hope when roadblocks inevitably arise.
Getting to 2030
Each and every day that remains in this decisive decade will consist of a series of decisions that need to be made in order to meet our global 2030 goals. Now is the time to set your own path and lead your organization forward. Download the Regenerative Compass—a guide to help you and your team ask the big questions and drive lasting, sustainable change.