Why Innovation Needs Purpose

All the research money in the world won’t create breakthroughs unless there are motivated, engaged people to do the work, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

The message is clear: disrupt or prepare to be disrupted. Or, as Michael Porter put it in the Harvard Business Review, “Innovation has become perhaps the most important source of competitive advantage in advanced economies.” 

But when innovation becomes the focal point for survival, what happens to purpose? Is it too fluffy? An afterthought? Inconsequential?

Think again.

In a recent study, almost two-thirds of executives saw that having a sense of purpose beyond the daily commercial mission made them more able to innovate, and so either disrupt or respond to disruption. 

Consider the instinctive fight, flight, or freeze reaction. When our life is at stake, we don’t take the time to consciously think about why we are living it — we’re just focused on how we are going to get out of danger. But this doesn’t mean we have no purpose. Beyond sheer survival, our sense of purpose remains the driver — the force that directs how we strategize and the risks we are willing to take.

Peter Drucker, the great pioneer of management theory, said it well. “In innovation, there is talent, there is ingenuity, and there is knowledge. But what innovation requires is hard, focused, purposeful work.” Drucker argued that for innovation to sustain itself — to keep taking creative risks and coming up against the potential for failure — we need passion.

And passion flows from purpose.  If leaders want their organization to stay innovative over the long haul, connection to a higher and more compelling vision provides the fuel.

This challenges a long-held belief that what innovation mainly requires comes down to money. In 2005, Booz Allen Hamilton looked at the 1,000 public companies who spent the most on R&D. Their research showed no correlation between R&D spending, new patents, and financial measures of success. Instead, the study found that companies who overperform in providing innovation often underspend in R&D — companies maintaining performance as much as three times higher than average were spending only half as much on R&D as their peers.

Even Google, which dedicates a hefty sum to R&D, will tell you money doesn’t procure or sustain innovative ideas. “The story of innovation has not changed. It has always been a small team of people who have a new idea, typically not understood by people around them and their executives.” observes Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt. If you haven’t put in the work to help people shift perspectives, think creatively, collaborate, or embrace failure, no amount of cash is going to let them innovate. Innovation, like purpose, is not a skillset. It’s a mindset.

As the “innovate or die” notion ramps up so is the conversation on purpose. In the end, purpose makes innovation better by promoting passion. That’s a key ingredient in the secret sauce for thriving over time.

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