GENERAL FEEDBACK – Social Innovation 

This case on social innovation “Cascade Engineering: Social Innovation at a Triple-Bottom-Line Plastics Manufacturer” puts students in the shoes of Terrance Robinson, a young associate engineer at Cascade Engineering.  A junior position most of Gaia’s students are successfully poised to get in the near future.

This case highlights an issue (creating access to healthy water) that is important and that many students care about, in an environment (manufacturing) that is a leverage point for broad, systemic change.

Robinson wants to advance an idea he has for a new product offering at Cascade. He seeks to create positive change without authority. In his role, Robinson has limited formal authority — he must navigate the complex system of Cascade to be effective in accomplishing his goals.

We elaborated the questions bearing in mind some concepts of social movement theory adjusted to Robinson’s position and goals (he is determined to create positive change without authority). In fulfilling his ambition Robinson needs to consider:

  1. when best to move forward, creating a configuration of allies. Here we looked at Opportunity Structure -Q3 (knowing when the moment is right for change)  and Network Structure -Q2 & Q5 (creating the configuration of allies that is needed).

      2. how to make a compelling case. Here we have analysed Framing Structure -Q1 (how to make the case attractive).

     3. and how to mobilize effectively. Here we payed attention to Mobilizing Structures -Q4 (how to organize people for your initiative).

These three factors match the three learning objectives we wanted you to master after this case’s completion:


  1. Reflect on what drives a social innovator to lead and engage teams and people.
  2. Learn to create support for social innovations and viable businesses.
  3. Gain support for your ideas where you have low authority.

All in all a social innovator has to work with these factors to harness the momentum of the system -whatever it means to your context- to accelerate support for his/her  initiatives and ideas. In Robinson’s case the system is manufacturing opportunities at Cascade.

In the following lines, we provide answers to the 5+1 case’s questions. In doing so, we try to connect the social movement theory concepts mentioned above with the practical implications we can draw from the case.

1. Given that “both products improved upon heavy and awkward previous versions and methods, and both provided ways to supply clean water in water-stressed countries.” Justify Robinson’s inspiration for a new business opportunity as a means to unmet needs.

This question relates to the second factor mentioned above –Framing Structure (how to make a compelling case). In an organization, there is a dominant logic — ways of thinking and talking about things that are in tune with cultural norms. For Cascade, what are the cultural norms? What elements of the initiative might Robinson want to highlight or downplay to activate the support of those important to its success, without triggering resistance from others?

According to the case, Robinson began to think that the WaterWheel could be a complementary business opportunity for the Triple Quest business unit. We have to examine that this contradicts Keller’s founding principle of “start with something good and make it a good business” – that is, identify a social need then the business opportunity. However, we later learned that Robinson went to Wello’s website –  (page 8 of the Case) to find out that the WaterWheel’s “cap-in-cap design kept clean water clean” – an observation which justifies Robinson’s inspiration as a means to unmet need. Page 9 of the Case. In summary, the WaterWheel makes it easy for women and girls to transport water from long distances while the Hydraid is then used to purify water collected by the WaterWheel.

Pay attention that “Start with something good then making it a good business” is a founding principle of social innovation. It doesn’t apply to all businesses, hence the reason we quoted it here from page 3 of the case.

2. Although Cascade’s Triple-Bottom-Line philosophy naturally reflects support for social innovation, illustrate the stakeholders’ matrix giving Robinson the best bet to manage expectations and communicate effectively to eventually get buy-in.

This question relates to the first factor mentioned above – Network Structure (creating the configuration of allies that is needed). For any given decision there is one or more decision maker. Who are the people who would need to be on board for this particular decision? What do they care about? Few decision makers reach their conclusions in a vacuum. To whom do these people turn for

advice and guidance? How can you get these people on board early?

A- Robinson has to be aware of the category of all stakeholders involved to succeed. He could use the help of senior colleagues with high interest and importance to reach out to the external stakeholder(s).  


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He also has to be aware of the budget, schedule and scope of each stakeholders/departments which would potentially be involved in his new project. He could enquire if the organization has a standard procedure of partner engagement or has established one through its years of operation. For instance, Robinson must take into account that “Cascade originally manufactured the filter as part of a humanitarian effort (scope) with an NGO partner, International Aid” and subsequently International Aid ran into financial difficulties (budget). Page 8 of the Case.

3.What are the most important questions that would enable Robinson to “fail early to learn quickly”?

This question relates to the first factor mentioned above –Opportunity Structure (knowing when the moment is right for change). Changes in opportunity structure may encompass leadership, competitors, strategy, policy, or more. How can these be utilized to create momentum for change?  There are many decisions to be made on any given day in an organization. Externally-imposed

timelines (for example, the construction schedule for a new building) can create a sense of urgency to make decisions sooner than might otherwise be necessary. In this case Robinson can relate departments in ways it may arise a sense of urgency. Let’s see this.

It’s relevant to note that the phrase “fail early to learn quickly” isn’t just a mantra. The whole idea is based on the use of experimentation to quickly figure out what works and what doesn’t. This could be applied in new product design just like Michael Dell’s experiments which actually led him to a better and faster computer. Using a set of hypothesis would enable innovators to learn quickly if an idea would work or fail cheaply before enormous resources be allocated.

With reference to Michael Dell’s scenario available on page 31 of the social innovation textbook – Robinson should be asking the engineering, manufacturing and sales teams questions about:

  1. Unit cost of production of Hydraid and each of its components
  2. Investigate the cost of production of the WaterWheel and also its components
  3. The cost – price margin per unit – considering International Aid ran out of fund to support the distribution of Hydraid prompting Triple Quest to take over the initiative.
  4. Does Cynthia Koenig’s philosophy align with Cascade’s triple-bottom-line?

Asking these questions prior to seeking buy-in would create a basis which allows Robinson to explore the future or how things might turn out when he finally seeks buy-in.

4- Say Robinson gets internal buy-in, by what process would this new product be brought to live considering WaterWheel as a patented innovation Cascade couldn’t just replicate.

This question relates to the third factor mentioned above –Mobilizing Structures (how to organize people for your initiative)

How would Robinson mobilize people’s efforts? There are three possibilities:

− Existing tracks. Strategies that can leverage existing platforms and structures are often appealing to leaders making decisions. Due to pre-existing resources there could be a lower barrier to approval. Where might there be existing structures that could be repurposed to advance this initiative most efficiently?

− Pilots. Often, leaders will be looking for a smaller way to move towards a new initiative. This allows

the idea to be tested and refined, while managing the financial and strategic risk of taking a new direction. How might this initiative be advanced in a modular and scalable way?

− Technology. Many companies and customers are globally disaggregated now. In this case in particular, Robinson is working with a network of customers and colleagues across many countries. How might they use technology to achieve their goals faster and better than would otherwise be possible?

The answer provided here addresses a general scenario which is applicable even in Robinson’s case and elsewhere. For Robinson to get buy-in, he needs to show that he isn’t just looking to make more money for the Cascade – as that would contradicts the founding principle of starting with something good then making it a good business. Social innovators like Robinson and yourselves need to identify the gap that exist which could potentially make existing products better – in his case the Waterwheel.  Recall Q1.

Robinson examined the structure and features of the Waterwheel and found that it only kept clean water clean, meaning Cascade’s Hydraid filter feature could complement the Waterwheel to ensure all water (clean & unclean) collected from the Waterwheel is clean.

This shows that a potential new product would create more social value which in turn would make more money for Cascade.

5. How could Robinson’s role as an associate engineer at Cascade be of advantage to help him gain other perspectives to his idea, also considering his young age and low authority?

We’ve touched this indirectly answering question 2. Page 1 of the Case document mentioned that; “In his position, Robinson played a key liaison role among the sales, engineering, and manufacturing teams.” Therefore, with low authority, he could really influence things with those who would actually be responsible for the execution of his idea. A buy-in from them could potentially strengthen his proposal to the key stakeholders.

6. Imagine for a moment you have a job like Robinson but in your current company. (not an internship position).  Do you think that there is any example of product or service in your company that has the potential to turn into  a social innovation project?

You don’t have to feel compelled to find an example. If you don’t come across any, just justify why not. If you do, please answer succinctly what would you do in case you spotted a business opportunity like that?

We hope that this case study and Idris Bello’s webinar has been useful for you to learn how to navigate complex organizations (such as Cascade) to create positive change, even if you do not have authority.

Rafael Viñuela

Gaia Team

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