WHAT IF a Conference Produced Sustainable Results?

This first appeared in Sustainable Brands News & Views.

Large pieces of paper cover the tables. A few bright sticky notes sprout here and there. Earnest-looking people bent over writing or steeped in conversation ignore their half-eaten lunches. Ideas begin to pop.

It’s lunchtime at Sustainable Brands 2014 and we’ve challenged delegates to come up with a vision and concrete plans for answering three big WHAT IF questions while they eat:

WHAT IF we had a day without waste?

WHAT IF commercial chemistry was as effective and life friendly as nature’s chemistry?

WHAT IF organizations of all sizes sustainably sourced 100% of the $5 trillion in global procurement?

Addressing even a small piece of any one of these WHAT IFs takes the active cooperation of lots of different people. But how do you get them to work together any time… much less in the middle of a busy conference?

Regardless of the setting or the issue, the principles remain the same. Start by co-defining the problem in order to co-create the solution. Simple problems have simple answers. Complex problems have complex solutions. They don’t have one cause and therefore can’t have one solution or one owner for the cause or the solution. Solving them takes collaboration across organizations, sectors, and communities.

That makes a place like the Sustainable Brands Activation Hub not problematic but ideal: a rare crossroads bringing together a diverse group of people with common goals. The challenge remains, though, to get those people to focus. That’s where the CollaborateUp Formula comes in. The Formula adapts proven practices from successful approaches like Lean StartUp, Shared Value, and Adaptive Leadership to create a set of tools for social innovation and quickly bring stakeholders up-to-speed on major challenges and provide a simple but effective structure for co-creating solutions. By using the tools innovators get on the same page and, have a common platform for identifying the concrete steps they will take to achieve results.

Working with the Activation Hub Sponsors for each WHAT IF, we recruited “strange bedfellows” by seeking out a diverse set of conference delegates to work on each one. We then formed them into working groups to start crafting visions and plans. Coca-Cola tackled a day without waste, BASF led the discussion on making commercial chemistry as sustainable as natural chemistry, and SAP hosted the question of WHAT IF we could source sustainably. These sessions revealed a set of innovation pillars that anyone looking to take on multi-stakeholder collaboration to solve a tough problem should consider.




This seems basic but it’s actually quite hard. When delegates started parsing SAP’s question,

“WHAT IF organizations of all sizes could sustainably source 100% of the $5 trillion in global procurement?” they found themselves debating the meaning of individual words or phrases. “What does ‘organizations of all sizes’ mean?” asked one. “What do we mean by ‘sustainably source’?” asked another. “Where did the ‘$5 trillion’ figure come from?” asked another.

That’s why the CollaborateUp Formula starts with a DataLab to bring stakeholders together to agree on the data so that we can all move forward as one. This means putting our data, science, definitions, and beliefs on the table so we have a shared starting point and we can move forward together.




Collaborative efforts often fail before they begin because potential innovators get stopped by one of two things: they don’t know where to start or they’re worried someone else already has. For the former, see “target populations” below. For the latter, figuring out that unique thing we can do together is when the magic starts to happen when a clear problem statement creates the launchpad for generating ideas.

In the Coca-Cola Ekocycle conversation on #ADayWithoutWaste, delegates broke the question in two: how can we change consumer behavior on the one hand and create new, less waste-producing products on the other? By more clearly defining the problem, these team teased out who their efforts would benefit, which partners they would need, and how they would roll programs out together. Take the product innovation side. In a short amount of time, participants sketched out value propositions for different kinds of products (food vs. electronics vs. industrial vs. etc) and therefore the need to engage multiple stakeholders from designers to governments in these areas. They specifically looked at educating supply chain participants – especially product designers – on the benefits and demands for lower waste products and the need  for government- and market-based incentives.




In attempting to serve everyone you serve no one. Knowing who you want to help is often the first step in co-creating a social innovation. Whether it be a more demand-driven collaboration, like the Ekocycle products for millennials that care about the waste produced by their purchases, a behind the scenes approach to a better procurement system like SAP’s, or a multi-stakeholder attitude shift like BASF – collaborative efforts must have a specific target population in mind in order to measure effectiveness and achieve results. In the Coca-Cola Ekocycle example, focusing on millennial consumers helped delegates better define the value proposition by narrowing in on specific actions to change the purchasing and recycling mindsets and behaviors of millennials. In the SAP example, it quickly became clear that smaller businesses face a different challenge than larger. Mid-sized businesses, in fact, seem the most squeezed. Big businesses can afford the IT and other infrastructure required to track sustainable procurement and small businesses can get away with spreadsheets. Those in between struggle to find the tools they need. Delegates also realized these tools need to work for specific populations within the organization, including finance, operations, sales, and of course procurement.




BASF posed the question “WHAT IF commercial chemistry was as effective and life friendly as nature’s chemistry?” The company’s sustainability approach starts from the premise that human beings consume more than the Earth can regenerate. Companies like BASF can play a special role in making those natural resources go further and in creating entirely new resources. These efforts require not only pre-competitive collaboration among similar companies but cross-sector collaboration to address social and environmental concerns.

Delegates looked at the need for not just chemists, but biologists, zoologist, biodiversity experts, life-cycle assessment specialists as well as conservationists, sales people, and marketing experts. Ensuring we have adequate resources for the coming centuries will take people who understand the natural environment, science, and business. It will take all these people to craft solutions that do minimal harm, create value, and that people will buy.



While we accomplished a lot right there in the Activation Hub, the question remains: can a conference create sustainable value by producing real results after everyone went home? To find out, we will check back with our discussion leaders and continue to report progress.

We already heard back from BASF. The CollaborateUp-hosted session started a conversation with a new business partner. Working together on a real problem in the Activation Hub let them come together in an informal, yet constructive and organized way. By working on a common goal at Sustainable Brands the companies realized that they had shared goals and values that could be the start of a great long-term conversation and business relationship.

In addition, we continue to engage the Sustainable Brands membership network, holding a CollaborateUp MicroAcademy at the most recent SB Member Meeting in Minneapolis. If you couldn’t attend, you can join the full CollaborateUp Academy September 17-19 in Washington, DC where we’ll share the results of these and other efforts to accelerate the Return on Collaboration. SB members receive a 50% discount if they register by August 25.

More to come!

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Extremely practical and extremely easy to implement once you have an understanding of the steps and the formula and the requirements of the process. - CollaborateUp Academy Participant
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The course was great! Great value and great insights into collaborating with various partners in multiple situations. It really change my thought process and how I view situations with our clients and stakeholders. - CollaborateUp Academy Participant
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I soon discovered that it doesn’t really matter whether your introduction to CollaborateUp is through an issue solving workshop, or at an event as Richard brings all the chaos together with his savvy charm and good humour - the most important thing is that you get to engage and work with these great folks! My biggest take out over the past five years of being a part of their world – collaboration is a process and you’re not going to get very far unless you know what problem you’re all trying to solve together. The CollaborateUp framework helps by asking simple questions to help reveal the big answers. - Cate O’Kane, Founder, &co partnership consultancy