Innovation Thinking: Purpose-driven innovation and the importance of infusing meaning into work


This is the third article in a series called “Innovation Thinking,” where we explore tools and processes that can help to foster innovation, both big and small, within your company. 

Purpose, although not a necessary ingredient to innovation itself, is nevertheless an important driver in fostering innovative culture within companies. A sense of purpose—defined as a driving mission outside of simply being profitable—helps companies to better understand their environments, generate more ideas and suggestions, and overall improve the quality and quantity of innovation within the business. 

Most business leaders would agree about the importance of having a company purpose, but few realize how to truly make their business a purpose-driven company. For purpose to be effective in innovation, it must align with key business goals and drive decision-making throughout the organization. Managers and employees must know what it is, they must know how to articulate and communicate it, and they must be empowered to take action in order to serve that purpose. 

As Daniel Vasella, CEO of Novartis, best simplifies it, “People do a better job when they believe in what they do and in how the company behaves, when they see that their work does more than enrich shareholders.”

Gallup has found that only about 32% of workers in the US are engaged in work, which is much higher than the worldwide average of 13%, but still leaves much room for growth. According to PwC, employees need to find meaning in their daily work in order to be engaged, but fewer than half say they do. 

Companies can correct this imbalance through meaningful steps that open up the conversation lines between managers and employees. By helping employees answer the question, “why does my work matter?” and “how does my work align with my personal values and aspirations?” companies can empower individuals to make a bigger difference for the organization. Some helpful tips:

Connect work to service through customer and employee stories.

Employees want to see how their organization makes a difference in the lives of others. Using customer and colleague testimonials can help to enhance this personal connection, as it brings in the human element to work. 

Luckily, most companies have great stories; they just need to be told, preferably in person. Have managers regularly share customer feedback and case studies, or invite a few clients in for a casual lunch to have them talk to your employees in person. Highlight great employee contributions and have them personally share their work experiences with their colleagues. And as the leader of the company, be sure to have regular face time with the team, whether that’s in person or through a conference call/recorded video if your team is big or remote. 

Allow employees some flexibility in crafting their work. 

When you treat your job as your craft rather than just something you do for money, it gives you a higher sense of purpose and engagement in your work. Yale Professor Amy Wrzesniewski discovered that the happiest and most effective hospital custodians were those that were “job crafting,” essentially creating the work they wanted to do out of the work they had been assigned. Some did this by rearranging artwork to simulate coma patients’ brains; others devoted time to learning about cleaning chemicals that would least irritate patients’ conditions. It wasn’t necessary to the job description; they simply did it in the pursuit of excellence of service to others. 

Companies can and should encourage job crafting within their own teams, giving employees the flexibility to “own” the aspects of their job they love most. That could mean encouraging an employee to become an expert at a specific type of software the company uses (perhaps even funding classes or online tutorials from the company), or going as far as allowing employees to pursue side projects for the company (as Google famously did). Just remember that managers have to act as a guiding force to ensure that job crafting is beneficial to the company and serves its greater purpose, and doesn’t waste time or resources.

Infuse purpose into your recruiting strategy

Studies have shown that employees that have a strong connection to their employer’s purpose hare more likely to stay at a company. Thus it make sense to want to hire people that not only have the right skill set, but also share the same values required by your company purpose. (Note: shared values do not equate to shared culture—it’s still important to hire for diversity in background and experiences.) 

Don’t let those values go assumed, however. Company leaders should articulate the company purpose and values in writing, so that HR and recruiters understand what they’re specifically looking for. For example, if you’re a eco-fashion brand whose purpose is to reduce your carbon footprint on the world, then values you might seek include a focus on sustainability and environmental responsibility and a commitment to fair trade. 

Ultimately, helping current and potential employees to find meaning in their work isn’t about changing the nature of the work, but rather influencing how they think about it. And to that effectively, you’ll need to put purpose at the center of your business strategy.