License to innovate: Breakthrough strategies for social impact

A report from Deloitte and the WBCSD

Today forward-thinking companies are jumping at the opportunity to develop business solutions that supercharge growth and improve social outcomes, breaking the traditional trade-off between financial and social gain. While some global companies are satisfied with maintaining a “license to operate,” others view market-based solutions to global challenges as evidence of their “license to innovate.” For this research, Deloitte’s Social Impact practice collaborated with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to explore both the reasons behind this trend and strategies for how companies can bring innovative—and impactful—new offerings to market.

Understanding how to innovate for social impact

This report introduces the business case around “why” companies are pursuing strategies for growth through social impact, as well as five strategies for “how” they are working towards this ambitious goal.

Unsurprisingly, crafting offerings that deliver a new kind of value, in some cases to a new segment of consumers, is not without its challenges. We provide an honest look at both the advantages and disadvantages of each strategy, as well as considerations that companies should weigh in determining their overall readiness for taking action.

The perspectives shared by companies that are already pursuing these strategies, as well as themes that emerged across our research, help to guide companies in their choice of which strategy, or strategies, are the best fit for their business solution and organization.

Five strategies for social impact

Our research surfaced five primary strategies that a company can pursue to innovate new offerings that deliver measurable social impact:

  • Invest in external solutions: Invest to advance external solutions demonstrating profitability and impact
  • Engage a network: Engage in networked problem solving with other organizations to identify and test possible solutions to scale
  • Accelerate externally: Secure external services to accelerate the solution development
  • Sandbox solutions: Advance internally developed solutions into a viable proof of concept through a shared proving ground
  • Innovate in-house: Advance a pipeline of solutions already in-house

Many considerations factor into which strategy (or strategies) a company chooses, from the company’s motivations for pursuing social impact, to how significant a departure the envisioned geography and type of offering is from where and what the company typically sells, to the pressures a company is under from its stakeholders, industry, and competitors.

Besides these considerations, strategies vary by the extent to which the company is ready and able to drive the innovation process versus relies on external partners to support a new solution’s development, as visualized below.

Figure 1: Ownership by innovation phase for the five strategies

Finding your “best fit” strategy for social impact

Although a company’s capabilities across the five phases of the innovation process make certain strategies more feasible than others, other important considerations shape its choices. Simply pursuing what is possible, particularly for the most versatile and well-resourced companies, would likely lack focus and risk extending the company in disparate directions of questionable value.

To demonstrate how a company may navigate the many questions that may help determine its “best fit” strategy, Figure 2 represents an illustrative decision tree of common decisions a company makes when selecting a strategy.

Figure 2: Determining the best fit strategy for your organization

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