Sustainable Innovation – a conversation with Alan South of Solar Century

Sustainable Innovation – a conversation with Alan South of Solar CenturyAlan South leads Solar Century, a company dedicated to bring novel and sustainable solar energy products to the world. He has abackground working for IDEO, perhaps the foremost design innovation company in the World. I wanted to know how he has created a climate of innovation at Solar Century and his thoughts on creativity, design and the role of leadership in building an innovative enterprise. Since Solar Century’s products are all connected with harnessing the power of the sun, let’s start with some thematic music in honour of the sun:

Peter Cook: What did you take away from IDEO in terms of creativity and innovation?

Alan South: I joined in the early days of IDEO in 1995 some three years after its creation. During the time I was there, it evolved into a global leading light in innovation, taking design thinking way beyond product to services, infrastructure, national problems. It continues to grow and thrive in that space. Perhaps the most important thing I took away was not so much about the idea generation process itself. The rate limiting step for innovation in so many cases is about how ideas get traction so that they turn into somethinguseful.

Peter: I also see that IDEO ‘converge with care’, preserving what is novel and cool about an idea. Can you say more about that?

Alan: The core of many ideation processes is about how one idea can build upon another. An awful lot of idea evaluation processes are quite reductive. What IDEO did extraordinarily well was to make the ideation process additive.

Peter: There are some that say that creativity techniques are for dummies. What is your view on the value of techniques for divergence and convergence versus more intuitive approaches?

Alan: If you are the lone inventor then fine – your own intuition may be sufficient. On the whole if you are trying to make big differences, you are usually talking about groups of people. The absolute first thing they need is a common language. Number two if you want significant numbers of people to work together is that they need to agree on a set of common processes. The agreement on that process is much more important than the particular process itself.

Peter:  So, say something about how you see innovation

Alan: Innovation is about going wide, turning the corner, going narrow. That’s all there is although there are a number of different ways of going about this. The Design Council in the UK talk about doing that process twice – what they call the ‘Double Diamond’ model. IDEO always started by observing people using a bunch of human practice techniques to uncover latent user needs. A good IDEO project would be one where solving latent user needs would make a big difference. They had about 6 high level ideas that were part of their process.

Peter:  And yet, it would be insufficient to write down those 6 ideas to an inexperienced person?

Alan: Yes. The real art is in interpreting those high level ideas to fit a particular problem at hand. Each problem is sufficiently different combined with the fact that the world is moving and changing – so the idea of writing a guide book becomes problematical.

Peter:  How does Solar Century innovate?

Alan: Solar Century is a solar photo-voltaic power company. We are in the business of doing large solar projects and manufacturing solar buildingproducts. We set out our stall as being a company that providing solar to be integrated into buildings. We noticed that there was a lot of redundant space on buildings such as roofs, facades and so on which could be turned towards energy production, allowing power to be generated and used locally. We raised some money and hired some people including me. We had to turn an abstract idea into a business. In 2003, solar building products did not exist – at that time solar was something you would see on satellites and not in builder’s yards. We struggled with compatibility issues – the idea existed, the market and the customer was not well understood. The distribution channels were not really understood. But it felt like an idea with real promise. We were not alone in this – there were other pockets of this thinking around the world. The job of the innovation team was to bring this very abstract idea to life.

The first thing we had to do was to get under the skin of two industries – The Photo-Voltaic industry and the construction industry. We characterised the PV industry as lab coats and the construction industry ashard hats. Our job was to innovate solutions that would join the lab coats to the hard hats, which was a bit like mixing oil and water.

We had to avoid innovating perfect solutions in a vacuum that would confound any part of the value chain. For example, a solution that the PV industry would not be able to manufacture would or an elegant solution that the construction industry would not know what to do with. So we set up some processes to get under the skin of the industries and this is an ongoing process that continues to this day. We also needed to make some judgment calls on how far we thought we could innovate beyond the status quo in a way that would start to build adoption. We kicked off by exploring a pretty wide range of ways of getting moving and to go through a relatively short (one year) cycle to come up with ideas of the kind of product we would take to market. We pulled the industry by the nose and then relaxed back a bit when it started to hurt.

Although parts of the construction industry are quite conservative, one thing that delighted me was to find that roofers were very open to our ideas on reinvention. We ran a campaign called ‘Don’t miss out on the roofing revolution’ and it was extremely well received. Each year we have gradually started launching more and more offers. The journey moved from a roof tile, then another roof tile through more sophisticated complete building systems for commercial roofs towards massive aerodynamic systems for factory roofs, based on the ideas on technology adoption in the book ‘Crossing the chasm’. Editor’s note : Reminds me of the classic adoption curve:

Essentially we became very good at mass customization as the company began to export, for example in the big building roofing product that we have designed here but carefully fit to a customer need. We ship a bespoke kit of parts.

Peter:  Turning inward, does Solar Century have a set book of techniques for creating and innovating?

Alan: We do not have a book of techniques for the divergent and convergence. We do have a process and we do use divergent and convergent techniques but these are tacit knowledge amongst the staff group, as we are only 120 people.

Peter:  So, like a rock band, nobody knows the notes, but everyone can play the tune?

Alan: Correct.

Peter:  What do you find the most valuable techniques for diverging and converging?

Alan: I find that the toughest bit in innovation is turning the corner between diverging and converging. I struggle with it, teams do. It takes real guts to stop diverging and say we have spent enough money and time. It requires getting the whole team to stop the process and get consensus that it’s OK to turn the corner. Otherwise one of the diseases of innovation is that you hover around at a certain level of abstraction or keep going wider and people lose interest.

Diverging is the easy bit. I still am a big user of brainstorming, done properly. The IDEO method of creativity is built on the principle that you get greater creativity when you put some boundaries and rules in place. Rule Number one is stay focused on the topic. The corollary of that is that if you don’t know what the topic is it’s hard to stay focused. A good creativity facilitator can take a bunch of very conservative people and get some real results out of them.

For me the two big challenges are converging and execution.

Peter:  It is clear to me that Solar Century have acted as what Rosabeth Moss Kanter would call ‘boundary crossers’ in joining two disparate industries together (PV and Building)? What else do you consider to have been critical in getting the industries to join up?

Alan: We are structured wholly as a virtual manufacturer, which means we have to be good at co-ordinating the whole value chain. The only part of our operation that we retain is the innovation function. The upside of being a virtual manufacturer is that we can be much more flexible. It has allowed us to experiment without buying factories. We have for example used a contract manufacturer in the UK to develop and test new products, then exported the manufacturing to China and start on the next product in the UK. The flipside is that you cannot have it all ways. You have to become quite expert in production planning as you cannot have loose commitments in terms of volumes and then be expected to turn the dial up.

Peter: Tell me something about leadership for innovation.

Alan: If it’s not about turning ideas into results, then it’s not innovation. There are plenty of non-monetary forms of results, such as effecting cultural change, but in many cases money is a good proxy for the results sought from an innovation intervention.

Hence I tend to use the equation: innovation = turning ideas into money. I know such an equation has its shortcomings, but it does have the benefit of simplicity.

My point of view is that attention needs to be given both to the management of ideas and to the creation of valuable results. I find there is a bias towards ideas and less towards execution.

Covering both successfully requires innovation leadership needs to cover a broad space within an organisation

On the one hand, an innovation leader has to be senior, well connected and influential. There will be uncertainty and chaos to be embraced. The leader will need to facilitate and give permissions and have the ability to deftly handle the stakeholders. To own the innovation vision and to have the credibility to make on occasion some big judgment calls. To have the time and freedom to do some broad thinking and be widely networked to pull in external influences.

On the other there’s a pervading need to pay attention to the details. Great innovation leaders somany times have a deep passion for the content. Innovation teams expect to be led from a position of content expertise, not from a position of hierarchical power. There will be times to make big demands of the innovation team and leadership needs to from a position of respect.

Big demands, and not business as usual within most firms. To deliver on this mix of seniority and depth means that T-shaped people even more critical than ever.

Peter: Can you develop T-Shaped people?

Alan: You cannot develop all people into T-Shaped people. There are two things you can watch out for. To be a good T-Shaped person you need to have the breadth in order to connect into and respect a multidisciplinary working life but you also need the vertical of the T. One of the things you can do is to make sure that your vertical remains deep. The flip side about T-Shaped people is that there are a bunch of people who are often brilliant and invaluable who are going to be nothing other than I-Shaped. There can be a tendency in some organisations to reject them or undervalue them. What’s important is to recognise them and value them.

Successful innovation – where ideas go all the way to results – is hard and requires innovation leadership that stands tall. When times are tough, like now, innovation is ever more important – but to succeed, innovation leadership has to stand even taller.

Final thoughts –

Innovation is about getting results – if there’s no result, it’ ain’t innovation.

There’s an inbalance in reporting or teaching innovation towards idea generation and creativity rather than executing them. A lot of frustration about innovation in companies arises from teams who throw their all into idea generation and then don’t see any results. Whereas, it’s an execution problem.

In good times innovation tends to be judged as turning ideas into money. In tough times innovation needs to be accountable as turning ideas into money.

Five success factors for creating and managing ideas:

1. Maintain a true passion for the content
2. Use qualitative customer research methods to complement qualitative methods
3. Prototyping is the engine for innovation, fail early fail often
4. Brainstorming: great innovation companies are fluent in brainstorming
5. Recognise the importance of storytelling to communicate innovation vision.

Five success factors for turning those ideas into results:

1. Demand greater accountability for innovation outputs – not inputs
2. Push the connection to the bottom line
3. Increase innovation efficiency and get more done
4. Expand innovation diversity to cover services, processes and supply chain
5. Be firm about the vision, flexible about the present.

Alan South may be contacted via We finish with another song inspired by the sun:

image credit:

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Peter Cook is Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence.  He leads Human Dynamics and The Academy or Rock, and provides Keynote speaking, Organisation Development and Business Coaching. and  You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock

Peter Cook




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  1. Andrew West on August 11, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    It would be great if solar generated was affordable – it isn’t. Therefore this entire interview is simply bullshit.

    The solar-charade is almost over. It has been an incredible waste of money.

    Pretending solar is a solution is counterproductive and wholly dishonest.

  2. Peter Cook on August 12, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Hello Andrew,

    Thanks for your strident view. I’m not sure I agree tho’. What are the arguments for and against? Over here, there has been a steady movement towards lowering the cost of the technology etc. which makes the whole thing more affordable.


  3. Peter Cook on August 12, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    I’m sure Alan South will step in here at some point to give his views as well.

  4. Alan South on August 13, 2012 at 11:11 am

    In terms of the affordability of solar, I recommend you (and other readers) take a look at a recent McKinsey report. You’ll find a different view on the cost competitiveness of solar. The report is free to download at

    I respect your differing views to mine regarding solar costs. However, this is an innovation blog. I can’t agree with your assertion that the content on innovation leadership expressed here is totally invalid purely as a result of these differing views.



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