Home > From the tavern: Innovation stories and opinions > Unilever Marches to a Different Beat

Unilever Marches to a Different Beat

Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

Reflecting upon this, it occurred to me that it can be true of companies that try to innovate and grow. Some classic mistakes, which fall under ‘doing the same thing over and over again’ include:

i) Looking internally

ii) Lack of focus

iii) Lack of transparency

The list of classic mistakes is clearly non-exhaustive. A striking example of a company learning from past mistakes and marching to a different beat in the innovation space, looking outside with focus whilst being transparent, is Unilever, a consumer goods company, known for its range of household cleaning products, food and beverages and personal care products, second only to Procter & Gamble.

In 2010, Unilever created focus by setting out the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, a 10-year plan, which looks across three broad range goals across their value chain – improving health and well-being, reducing environmental impact and enhancing livelihoods. Underpinning these three goals are then sub-themes with around 60 time-bound targets spanning social, economic and environmental performance across their value chain with increased responsibility over not just their direct operations but for their suppliers, distributors and how their consumers use their brands.

Rather than continue to look internally for solutions, Unilever launched an Online Open Innovation Portal earlier this year, to attract external ideas, based on a list of wants: safe drinking water, fighting viruses, better packaging, sustainable washing, less salt, amazing toothpaste, preserving food naturally, storing renewable energy, sustainable showering and changing consumer behavior.

Open innovation in itself is not new to Unilever who has been collaborating with external partners for years, and in 2009, even established an open innovation unit to work with outside partners. However, sharing openly its specific areas of wants clearly makes Unilever’s approach to open innovation a lot more transparent. It is not common, to say the least, for large multinationals to come out publicly with internal research projects, as done by Unilever, to seek help from external experts, in the different areas listed.

In its approach to stay focused while being transparent, Unilever sets a good example of leading innovation, instead of ad-hoc innovation. The leadership shown is a compelling invitation to attract experts of the different fields. Of course, getting external ideas is just the first step in the innovation pipeline, which then involves partnerships to develop those ideas into the technologies that can actually be taken to market.

But it is, at least clear that Unilever is not trying the same thing over and over again. It will be worth watching the progress Unilever makes in finding solutions for its list of ‘wants’ through its new innovation approach.

  1. August 7, 2012 at 02:02

    The Outside-In part of Open Innovation involves opening up a company’s own innovation processes to many kinds of external inputs and contributions. It is this aspect of open innovation that has received the greatest attention, both in academic research and in industry practice. Inside-Out Open Innovation on the other hand requires organizations to allow unused and under-utilized ideas to go outside the organization for others to employ in their businesses. In contrast to the Outside-In branch of open innovation, this portion of the model is less well understood, both in academic research and also in industry practice.

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