Mission thinking: embracing an experimentation mindset to accelerate growth at scale

Uncertainty has had an ever-increasing presence in our complex economic and social systems – and it's reached a new height with the Covid-19 pandemic. As we endure through these uncharted times, Dr. Mariana Mazucatto's work on mission-oriented innovation approaches might offer us some direction. 

An article by Sean Gabriel and Mara Zalite

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What is mission thinking?

Mission thinking stems from new approaches to enacting innovation policy – approaches that encourage common value creation as well as collaboration between the public and private sectors. The concept of mission-oriented innovation is the brainchild of rockstar economist Dr. Mariana Mazucatto, a founder of the UCL Institute for Innovation & Public Purpose (UCL IIPP). In her work, she challenges the dominant narrative of corporate geniuses (such as Steve Jobs) acting as the main drivers of innovation and growth. She argues that the government plays an equally important role and should be setting the vision and direction of travel. In her research, she famously traced the origins of every technology that made the iPhone, including Siri, which was the outcome of a Stanford Research Institute project to develop a virtual assistant for military staff. Similarly, the touchscreen was the result of graduate research at the University of Delaware, funded by the National Science Foundation and the CIA. This clearly illustrates the point that innovation comes from public and private partnerships and both parties should be equally rewarded. 

One of the most well-known and cited missions is the Apollo space programme designed to land Americans on the moon and return to Earth. With a total spend of $25bn, the program initiated more than 300 different projects driving innovation in areas such as aeronautics, nutrition, textiles, electronics and medicine, civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering resulting in 1,800 spinoff products, from freeze-dried food to flame resistant textiles. It's a great example of how a mission set by policy makers fuels both innovation and growth. 

UCL IIPP defines missions as an urgent strategic goal that requires transformative systems change, directed towards overcoming a 'wicked' societal problem (see Figure 1). They are a concrete target of ambitious but achievable progress towards a grand challenge facing our world. Missions: 

  • Are bold and inspirational, with wide societal relevance
  • Set a clear direction — targeted, measurable, and time-bound
  • Are ambitious but realistic 
  • Encourage cross-disciplinary, cross-sectoral, and cross-actor innovation 
  • Involve multiple, bottom-up solutions

They should stimulate the development of a range of different solutions to meet grand challenges and reward those actors willing to take risks and experiment. 

Figure 1: From grand challenges, to missions and cross-sector collaboration (Missions: A Beginners Guide, IIPP Dec 2019)

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We already live in a world of missions

Missions are not just an academic concept – they're already underway across the world in many shapes and forms.

Globally, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) act as a blueprint for achieving a better and sustainable future for all. These define 17 interconnected goals covering areas such as poverty, hunger, health and wellbeing, education, economic growth, sustainable cities and communities, industry innovation and infrastructure, reduced inequalities, responsible consumption, energy, peace and justice and more. Defined in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly, they are intended to be achieved by 2030. 

On a regional level, European Union Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation programme, is focused on taking on broad societal challenges and driving economic growth and industrial leadership for the region. Their targets for impact include cancer, adaptation to climate change, healthy oceans, climate-neutral and smart cities, and soil health and food. 

The UK Industrial Strategy also sets out four Grand Challenges, including Artificial Intelligence and Data, Ageing Society, Clean Growth and the Future of Mobility, as a means to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of solving these challenges and maintaining its competitive edge on the global stage.

Does mission-orientation work? 

Denmark offers a great example on how driving a green growth agenda has enabled the country to become one of the world leaders in the field. The country is on track to be fossil fuel-free by 2050. Its capital Copenhagen is also on a mission to become the first carbon neutral-city, which in return is fuelling innovation, job creation and better quality of life for its citizens and residents.  

In the corporate world, Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan is a great example of how mission orientation is good for business. In 2017/18 Unilever's brands with a social mission grew 46% faster than the rest of the business and delivered 70% of revenues. The former CEO of Unilever Paul Polman famously scrapped quarterly earnings reports to focus on long term value creation back in 2009. His audacious vision seems to be paying dividends. 

How can I get started?

Whether or not your organisation is directly tackling humanity's biggest challenges, you're likely to benefit from a mission thinking approach. Our modern world is full of interconnected challenges, and mission thinking lends itself well to any large-scale problem requiring coordination to solve.

Here are some of the keys to this approach and how we've been able to apply it to our everyday work at Red Badger.

Break down the insurmountable into bite-sized, solvable problems. It may not seem like meaningful progress to solve a small problem first, but missions succeed because actors push in a common direction and actions compound over time. We know that sufficiently caring for the generations that came before us isn't something Red Badger alone can address, but we took the digital skills we have and built ShareThyme as a way to spark healthy social connections within our ageing population. It's our way of contributing to the wider solution and we hope it inspires others to take action, but we also hope that it's just a start. As the old saying goes, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

Find the related, bite-sized problems that others are solving. Missions help shape an ecosystem where interconnected problems can be worked on in tandem, which creates more opportunities for leverage. We're in the process of aligning each of Red Badger's business divisions around an SDG, and empowering our teams to participate in a given SDG's ecosystem more intentionally as they seek more purpose-driven work. We're excited about the opportunities it will present for new forms of partnership and experimentation that we wouldn't have considered otherwise.

Start conversations that put collaboration over competition. Especially in the face of this pandemic, a zero-sum mentality pits neighbours against one another and misses the opportunities to become stronger together. Instead, we can align on a mission to prove we are ultimately on the same team. At Red Badger we firmly believe in the value of working cross-functionally and collaboratively, and this ethos is driving our launch of Mission Beyond, a new community for business leaders to partner on solving cross-sector challenges through the power of coalitions.

Ready to take the first step?

Embarking on a mission doesn't have to be daunting. Please get in touch if you'd like to learn more about how mission thinking can help you address the challenges you might be facing during this time in the world.

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