“The biggest driver of success is innovation! We need to think outside the box!”
I’m imagining a scene where a CEO of some company is standing on a well-lit stage, trying to convince its employees through some well-practised rhetoric and fancy theatrics, asserting that “innovation is key". However, beyond these shows, these big words typically don’t translate to a meaningful transformation into a truly innovative company.
So how do we build a truly innovative company? I stumbled upon this question when I joined a workshop my company organizes for educating our top talents on how to lead agile innovation. We partnered with a company called Leadapreneur  who delivers an experiential learning platform for our talents to create an idea, get it done (as opposed to mere simulated business plans), and convince our CEO that it actually generated business value. Essentially, this is the question we are trying to answer through this program, but it is a rather complicated question. However, I believe one of the answers lies in re-framing the question instead. When asking how to build a company that drives innovation, one of the underlying questions that need to be explored is this: How do you build entrepreneurial ownership? (or a more appropriate term might be "intrapreneurial" ownership - employees feeling like they own the company and it’s their personal desire to take their company to the next level). Why ask this? To start, we need to understand what truly drives innovation.
"How do we build 'intrapreneurial' ownership?" How do we make employees feel like they own the company and it’s their personal desire to take their company to the next level?
More often than not, innovation is associated with words like creativity, inventions, new technologies, etc. I’m not saying these associations are wrong, but these words only show the tip of the iceberg. What really drives innovation underneath is the conscious will and effort to put yourself out there, vulnerable against the world that is used to keeping the system of what works today . It's the deep drive and desire to create an alternative to the current system as a way of expressing one's self. This is either moved by eliminating/reducing pain or by having/maximizing gain – in short, by avoiding fears or by pursuing dreams. With that said, desire is usually rendered “too fluffy” and not what's typically accounted for when senior leaders talk about building an innovative company.
If these words are not only meaningless lip service from senior leaders, they’re oftentimes addressing the wrong issues to make the leap towards an innovative company. One common issue is what I just mentioned -- overestimating the “abilities" problem or competency gaps in contrast to putting more attention to address the motivation which is the real yet invisible engine of innovation. Again, both are important as elegantly expressed by the performance equation (Performance = Motivation x Abilities ); however, the typical reaction of managers to why a company is not innovative is to just blame the competencies of the people.
"Our employees are just not creative enough".
"They don't have the right mindset and don't think outside the box."
To some extent, this statement might be true, but just sending them off to traditional training might not be the answer either. In fact, majority of traditional (typically classroom-based) training programs would often fail to address such issues .
If that’s the case, how do we address motivation? One good place to look when it comes to innovation would be examples of innovators themselves – entrepreneurs. True entrepreneurs demonstrate intense hunger to realize what they desire to create. This desire is translated to taking a number of bold moves and putting in more hours for repeated iteration of what they’re trying to build. It’s precisely this strong desire and burning passion that give entrepreneurs courage to overcome the fear of failure and persevere through countless rejections. Innovation, being the pursuit of a new reality, universally requires to some extent a similar level of desire in the employees of a company should they wish to innovate as well. Companies cannot just require employees to be “innovative”; employees themselves need to want enough to innovate if they were to persevere in the realm of uncertainty the same way entrepreneurs do.
This is where the biggest gap is – the assumption that just focusing on competencies would do the rest. It does not necessarily translate to the extra hours that employees need to put other than business as usual and willingly putting this added effort without expecting overtime pay. Attending a workshop for “creativity” does not translate to the courage needed when it comes to taking initiative – initiatives that could fail but they do them anyways despite the fear from their managers blaming them for the possible failure. All these virtues of passion, courage, and resilience are pre-dominantly missing in the way we look at building innovative organizations today. Right now, the current popular “box” of how to build innovative companies is to just think of skills and solving that issue by traditional training. We need to re-think the box by accounting for the underlying influence of innovation which is the passion to create and an organizational culture built around it – something that classroom training cannot solve and traditional command-and-control management almost always kills. After we have started with building desire among employees, learning the necessary skills (or seeking how to develop them) would just almost naturally follow.
And here’s the thing, we can never have people who think outside the box because our minds always need a “box” to frame our thoughts; what we need to do is to re-think and re-imagine the box.
Now, how do we get employees to be passionate enough and hungry enough to innovate? How do we attract or shape talents to have an intrapreneurial ownership? One critical answer is PURPOSE. If companies are able to discover and articulate their purpose clearly by expressing authenticity around this purpose in anything they do and say, they get to attract and motivate talents who not only share the same purpose but also, as a consequence, willing to put in the time and effort to innovative progress, without necessarily expecting financial returns . Just look at companies like Apple, Google, Tesla, Uber, etc. to name a few. I’m not saying that all these companies have 100% employees who actively innovate, but these companies were at least able to give meaning to their employees’ work beyond just “having a job” because of what their company stands for. From livelihood, it became a platform for them to live and express their life’s purpose during their stay in those companies.
In our company, this is exactly what we are starting to address. We are now in a journey to re-discover our organization’s purpose that we kick-started during a management retreat we organized 2 months ago. From here, we not only can start to over-communicate our purpose but also can make sure that every single policy, process, practice, branding materials, competency, behavior, mindset, etc. is all an aligned and consistent expression of that purpose.
To support this with our innovation program, we also did the Lifepath – an exercise developed by Leadapreneur with the objective of allowing people to re/discover their purpose as a means of giving meaning to what they are doing today and what they intend to do in the future. Talents, who find greater congruence between their life’s purpose and the company’s, are definitely more engaged. However, the flip-side is true as well; the lack of understanding of one’s purpose or the company’s lead to disengagement or at least a very transactional relationship.
For people who are thinking this is all just fluffy talk, here’s a very well-written report by Ernst & Young and Harvard Business Review about the “business case for purpose”.  What’s going to be the source of relentless drive of people to push forward innovation, which by definition will naturally have the possibility of failure, is PURPOSE!
To end, here’s a quote from one of my post-modern heroes in the 21st century.