Purpose: Why it's good for business and how it can stimulate meaningful innovation

Published: January 4, 2019
Author: Steven Thomas

Food for the soul and great for business

In a previous article, I wrote about the strong scientific evidence to suggest that having a purpose in life and work can have a profound effect on our wellbeing as individuals. Indeed having a purpose in life appears to widely buffer against mortality risk across our adult years.

So, it stands to reason that businesses that operate under a true purpose tend to do well.  In a 2016 study, the Korn Ferry Institute found that businesses who operate under a true purpose far outperform their competitors. “We have found that organizations that take the challenging steps to define their core purpose and values, and integrate these throughout their operations—beyond slogans or advertising gimmicks—see not only strong bottom-line results, they also find this approach transforms all aspects of their business,” said Elaine Dinos, principal of Korn Ferry’s Global Consumer Market practice.

Similarly, across a four-year study, Deloitte found that the employee-work contract has changed, compelling business leaders to build organizations that engage employees as sensitive, passionate, creative contributors. In his summary of the study, Josh Berin tells us "When you offer people a mission and purpose greater than financial return, you attract passionate individuals who want to contribute. And that brings a level of commitment and engagement no compensation package can create.".

Having a Purpose is food for the soul and good for business and it can be a catalyst for innovation.

You can't have true innovation without purpose

Both are inextricably linked.  One can't exist without the other. Put simply, innovation can't happen without having a true purpose at its core. Innovation is the combination of creativity and implementation, to solve a human problem and therefore critically, to create meaningful change (the purpose).

Any innovation of significance that any human has achieved both on a personal and/or a business level has been because they have been driven by a purpose. Our purpose is our north star.  Our guiding light.  Try not to mistake purpose for mere tasks, though. Tasks are things we need to do. Our purpose is something that we have simply got do - sometimes at all costs. It's our raison d'etre and it speaks to the core of our very existence.  It nourishes us in the dark times.  Sheds light when we've lost our way and stimulates growth even in the most barren of landscapes.

It takes a people-first approach

True purpose (and therefore innovation) starts with empathy.  By walking in the shoes of others we can then recognise their needs and problems.  Through adopting this posture we can focus on connecting the dots that just might solve the problem.  This requires us as individuals (and businesses) to put our ego's to the side and take an outside-in view of the world.  If a project, product or service is to succeed it must solve the problems and fulfill both the functional and certain emotional needs of the people we wish to make change for. Taking an inside-out view, no matter how experienced we are in our field, will only get us so far.

Can businesses's really have a purpose to innovate on?

Yes, businesses can have a purpose that drives innovation but ultimately this purpose must come from the very people within the business who want to create that meaningful change for themselves and others around them.  In case you're unclear, creating profit isn't a purpose, it's an outcome. Equally, let's not fool ourselves into thinking that unbridled ambition is an actual purpose. Solving real-world problems through creativity and collaboration. Creating something that didn't exist before that has a level of care and finesse that can surprise and delight people.  Something that has a positive impact for others and that (even in incremental ways) changes our culture for the better - that's purpose-led innovation.  By taking a generous and creative posture we can find meaning, meaning gives purpose.

A 10-minute exercise on how to define a purpose for you or your organisation

I've designed this 10-minute exercise to help anyone define a purpose on which to innovate.  It can apply to an individual or a collective.

Follow the prompts in each of the six stages.  Try not to ponder too much.  Approach it with a light playful mindset if you can and see where the answers take you.  If the ultimate answer doesn't resonate with you or stir up motivation within your very being, then it's worth going deeper with the practice.

Free tool - Purpose Setting Canvas

To help with the exercise, I've designed this Purpose Setting Canvas.  Print it out A3 size and grab some sticky notes. Play with different answers, moving your stickies around or replacing them with new ones as you refine your answers.

Purpose Setting Canvas

If you like it, let me know.  All feedback welcome.