I recently had the opportunity to learn about General Mill’s (the US food giant) “emerging brands elevator” program (also known as 301 Inc). Traditionally, General Mills has grown either through mergers and acquisitions, or by building new businesses from the ground up. Increasingly, however, it found that small brands were much faster at innovation, so it decided to switch its focus and create a “brand elevator”. The program consists of 2 core components:
- horizon scanning: to spot the most promising emerging brands;
- indispensable partner: to identify ways in which the company can add most value to small, nimble businesses. Often this has less to do with capital injection and more to do with making the expertise and clout of a big multinational available to a small player.
Here’s an example of a 150 year old company actively exploring new interfaces to keep up with the “higher speed on the outside”, to paraphrase a famous Jack Welch quote. Whilst programs of this type have been around for a while, two things stood out for me: the active scouting (this is not an innovation fund waiting for proposals) and the emphasis on becoming a partner of choice. How many emerging social enterprises, startups or small civil society organisations (CSOs) in the developing world would see the traditional development players as their “indispensable partner”, and how many would describe them as an “elevator” for their mission and operations? Perhaps not many.
Take another case of a company with a centennial history – Johnson and Johnson. To much internal resistance, it set up JJ Labs: a “no strings attached” lab where researchers and startups produce findings that do not belong to the company, and even receive funding from its competitors. Initially set up as an experiment, it has now been launched in five different locations.
As I argued in the past, we are living in the era of development mutants: nimble new players, often originating in emerging markets, are challenging the role, the tools and ultimately the legitimacy of “big development”. Just like their private sector counterparts, established nonprofits with long histories are struggling to adapt. They acknowledge that “they need to retool as bridges and connectors”, but for a number of reasons taking the backseat to enable the mutants to take over the show is proving difficult (a situation well summarised in this recent piece on the future of Oxfam).
So what would it take to make a genuine transition from donors and funders (with the power unbalance and biases that go with it) to “development mutants elevators”? Here’s a few thoughts:
- Making local assets and solutions mapping and “mutants first” the new default position in program design. This would require a fundamental retooling of staff and the mainstreaming of approaches such as positive deviance or lead user innovation.
- Creating new financial tools to support local innovators “no strings attached” – and without necessarily requiring them to formalise themselves through a social enterprise or a CSO would also be paramount. Here the devil is often in the detail. It would be important that such financial instruments refrain from an all-too-easy infatuation with Silicon Valley narrative on “scaling” and “disruption” that have plagued development agencies’ early attempts at establishing innovation funds and accelerators (together with application procedures that often cut out many grassroots, organic innovations).
- Shifting from providing ready-made solutions to providing platforms that can be adapted and improved upon by local innovators with “sticky” local knowledge (think Malaria Box or emergency housing designed to be improved by refugees).
- Setting up new interfaces at the operations level (procurement, anyone?) to interact with “the mutants” in a meaningful way could also be part of the solution.
- In terms of behavioural change, finding a taker for Ken Bank’s “top-down, bottom-up development challenge” could send a strong signal to sector. Changing the language (e.g. from the last mile to the first mile) may also help over time counter in-built assumptions.
With all of this, anyone out there interested in setting up a mutant elevator?