While there is an innovator’s dilemma, there is also an innovator’s purpose. Less well known, an innovator’s purpose drives innovators to see beyond current convention, counters the natural risk aversion that large companies have to innovation, and mobilizes employees to accomplish their goal. As this author writes, purpose-driven innovation is the only way to change the rules of the game for lasting advantage.

For the past two years studies by Booz Allen Hamilton of the 1,000 biggest spenders on R&D in 2004 and 2005 have shown minimal correlation between levels of profitability and expenditure on innovation, at least as captured through formal R&D budgets. While the bottom 10 percent of spenders performed significantly worse than average, there was no evidence that, for the rest, simply increasing expenditure either boosted or damaged profitability.

This is hardly surprising: If it were easy to increase profits simply by spending money on R&D, everyone would do it. The difficulties in achieving profitable innovation do not arise not from lack of money, or even from a lack of good ideas. Rather, as has been well documented, they arise because good ideas in the work place are first of all discouraged and second not acted on.

A lot is known about how to counter this. The details of organizational design, the building of teams, the way people are recruited, the setting of stretch goals, the way top managers communicate, the use of research – all these and many other factors will influence how successful a company is at innovation. However, despite this body of knowledge, some companies still find it easier than others to put it into practice. There may be a tool kit, but how should the tools be used, and in what combination? What should be done not simply to create an effective R&D department, but to help the organization as a whole innovate profitably? These remain difficult questions for chief executives and chief scientists alike.

One part of the mix which is sometimes overlooked, and which can make it easier to put this knowledge into practice, is purpose. This word, in the sense that I am using it, means a reason for doing something that appeals to our sense of what is right and what is worthwhile. In a business context, it is what drives an individual or group beyond the drive to make as much money as possible. Leaders of the most successful companies over the long term first discover a purpose that fits the aspirations of their colleagues and the requirements of their business.

A successful purpose taps into longstanding moral ideas. It could focus on the desire to discover something new; many well-known innovators, such as Intel, Google and IBM, have embodied this purpose. It could be the achievement of excellence: companies such as Apple Computer and Toyota are well-known innovators driven by a relentless desire for ever-better products. A third purpose is altruism: the desire to help others. Many pharmaceutical innovators, such as Merck, have followed this purpose. And a fourth purpose, heroism, is reflected in an ambition to win and succeed above all others: Microsoft and the original Ford Motor Company are examples of “heroic” innovators.

When shared amongst colleagues, purposes such as these can encourage innovation by supporting both the generation and the implementation of ideas. The ideas may be big (the hybrid engine) or very small (minor efficiency gains on a production line); the implementation will typically take an idea all the way to a practical innovation, often passing through several stages (for example concept development, blue printing, prototyping, refinement, or engineering development). This article will describe ways in which purpose can help the process of innovation.


How do purposes help the innovation process? Consider the factors that lead to successful idea generation and implementation. These include sensitivity to the market, dissatisfaction with the status quo, persistence and willingness to take risks, a focus on shared goals (which leads to discipline in a team of innovators) and the trust and cohesion that facilitate the free flow of ideas. Purpose, I will argue, strengthens all of these.

Factors encouraging profitable innovation – based on literature review

Heading Idea generation Idea implementation
Sensitivity Innovators are



  • focussed on the real needs the firm is trying to meet
  • capable of seeing beyond the data and do not rush to algorithmic solutions
  • exposed to external influences



  • does not identify the firm only with technology now in use or current customer needs
  • is equipped to judge which projects to back
Dissatisfaction with the status quo Management



  • creates a critical mass of creative innovators
  • tolerates waste, failure and uncertainty (also aids implementation)
  • visibly supports innovation and projects dissatisfaction with the status quo
  • acts on ideas generated within the firm


  • display high levels of persistence
  • are intrinsically motivated
  • Management creates a separate organisation if needed for radical innovation
Focus on shared goals
  • Management creates clear targets linked to commercial results (also aids implementation)
  • There is a common understanding of the firm’s goals and strategy (also aids implementation)
  • Everyone pays attention to the problem at the right time (also aids implementation)
  • Management is equipped to judge which projects to back
  • Individuals and small groups are capable of implementing incremental innovations
Trust and cohesion
  • Constructive conflict between the innovators is possible
  • There are good personal networks and lateral communications throughout the firm (also aids implementation)
  • There is a high level of trust in the firm (also aids implementation)


Innovators with a strong sense of purpose are likely to be more sensitive to their environment. They are less likely to rely on extrapolations of the past to understand the needs they are trying to meet. This is because their purpose is itself a response to the environment – and one which by its nature engages the innovator strongly.

Consider examples of how different individuals have responded in this way. Many dot-com entrepreneurs saw the potential in technology for transforming the way things work because they had a purpose, namely to discover the new. Steve Jobs drove the development of the iPod and the iMac because he had a purpose to achieve excellence – computers that were “insanely great” as he put it. Some inventors are acutely aware of the benefits they might bring – Thomas Edison for example said he “never perfected an invention that [he] did not think about in terms of the service it might give others.”i Henry Ford and Siegmund Warburg, innovators both although in very different fields, were constantly looking for opportunities for exercising their power: for both of them this was an obligation as well a pleasure.

In none of these cases were the resulting ideas just plucked out of the air; still less did they emerge from some inward looking meditation. They were of their time, driven by purposes which amounted to a moral response to social and technological changes that were taking place around them. They expressed what the individuals thought was worthwhile at a fundamental level, that is their most profound response to circumstances. It is this that allowed them to break through convention, and the inevitable mistakes of abstract, rational analysis.

One could say that a purpose-based response, if genuinely felt, is effective because it matters. In a successful business, that response will also be commercial. As Jobs put it, “real artists ship [products]”. Indeed real artists – painters, poets or software designers – are sensitive to what is going on out there, and so to what people want and will respond to. They don’t just paint, or write, or design in a vacuum without customers. Jobs and his colleagues wanted to “make the best computers in the world and make the best software in the world.” This meant working on what mattered, or in the words of Avidis Tevanian, his chief software engineer, on “what’s urgently needed”. This was what Jobs brought back to the company. As Jonathan Ive, the designer of the iPod and the iMac put it:-

“When I joined Apple…it seemed to have lost what had once been a very clear sense of identity and purpose…. This only changed when Steve Jobs returned to the company.”ii

And the financial results followed.

But it is not just the pursuit of excellence that produces greater sensitivity. Over the last decade Tesco, based in the UK, has grown to become the third-largest retailer in the world. Like Apple, it is a purpose-driven company – but in this case the purpose is to serve the customer better. As a result, its loyalty scheme, the Clubcard, has been far more successful than those of its rivals, driving innovative retailing formats, various sub-clubs and producing very rapid growth in the chain. In the words of Sir Terry Leahy, now CEO but then the Director responsible for the Clubcard:-

“Our competitors had all the details of what their customers bought too, but if you don’t have the vision as a retailer that you are doing this to understand customers better and deepen that relationship, you’re always going to wonder why you’re making the effort.”iii

It is that ‘vision as a retailer’ that made the Clubcard team alive to patterns in the data, and so able to generate innovative ideas. Rival Safeway also had a card that produced as much if not more data but did not bring the same purpose to it. As its head of loyalty marketing put it: “Safeway didn’t make a priority of the ABC card, and failed to use its technological expertise to gain a truly customer focused approach”.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo

For many managers within large organizations, the personal cost of a mistake is greater than the rewards from success, even if the success brings greater gains for the company. Why risk a comfortable life for the chance of something which in the end does not matter that much to you? Hence a natural tendency to risk aversion and preference for the status quo. This attitude often extends from individual managers to infect the entire organization.

Purpose can compensate for this effect. This can be seen in the arithmetic of risk. Imagine you are a gambler who is offered a one in two chance of getting back $1,000,000 from a $300,000 stake. If you have unlimited funds you will accept the offer. However, if $300,000 is all you have, you would be wise to turn down the offer. Your first $300,000 is almost certainly worth more to you than your next $700,000, so even though the deal is theoretically attractive, it is not good for you. This is the position of many corporate managers.

However, if you can only achieve the things that matter to you if you win the $1,000,000, it may well be worth taking the risk. And that is often the position with purpose: you often have to succeed notably to succeed at all.

Towards the end of the 1920s, IBM dominated the tabulating machine market, and in the medium term at least the company was insulated from competition by its existing patents and customer relationships. With the arrival of the depression, it would have been easy to cut back on innovation – sudden advances by competitors were highly unlikely. But while dominating the existing market might have been enough for his colleagues and some of his shareholders, it was not enough for Tom Watson, who reckoned the market was only 5 percent of its potential size. Constant innovation was essential if IBM was to become the progressive institution he had in mind. Watson’s purpose – his quest to go “beyond our present conception” as he put it – drove the company to step up rather than cut back its innovation during the 1930s – a real risk, but one which ensured that IBM remained dominant in the 50s and 60s.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo also drives people to search out solutions to problems, not to give up, to keep on trying. This persistence is crucial to innovation, and the research shows that purpose encourages it.

Focus on shared goals

Purpose does not just make entrepreneurs decisive. It also helps empower middle ranking managers and so enables them to innovate – the evidence is that far too many good ideas are not implemented because managers feel powerless, often more powerless than their superiors want them to feel. In the Tesco example, the Clubcard team was able to act on their ideas precisely because they had such a clear idea of what they were trying to achieve. In addition, the existence of clear shared goals meant they had support from across the company – all customer-facing staff was encouraged to sell the benefits of the Clubcard to customers. After Danish hearing aid manufacturer Oticon was reorganized from a conventional hierarchy to a collection of projects, anyone could propose a project. It was even OK to embark upon a project without top management approval. The only test was whether you could persuade anyone else to join it.iv The CEO granted this freedom because he recognized that the employees shared a strong purpose that is to improve the lives of the hard of hearing. This translated into shared goals and thus a clear understanding about what was and was not acceptable. In this way empowerment was made safe.

Enron also allowed its people enormous freedom. The “stars” – favoured young managers – could set up projects just as they chose, rather as at Oticon. As CEO Jeff Skilling put it “If lots of [employees] are flocking to a new business unit, that’s a good sign that the opportunity is a good one.” The company had excellent people and an excellent strategy. Some would say it did have a heroic purpose – to win at any cost. I do not see this as a purpose, but in any case, it did not translate into shared goals or limits on behaviour. So the empowerment was not made safe.

Cohesion and trust

There is extensive evidence that cohesion and trust are key to the flow of information and ideas and to the willingness to take risks – and thus to successful innovationv. However not all forms of cohesion and trust have this effect. For example, they can be built around traditional loyalty, as in patriarchal family owned businesses for example. They can also be based on the natural communities that form ‘on the shop floor’ or in the office. But in neither of these cases do the cohesion and trust stimulate innovation, but rather the reverse, since the attachment to the way things are and to the people involved induces resistance to change.

However, cohesion and trust can also grow around a common purpose. In this case, it gives rise to a “community of purpose” – that is a group of people who knowingly share an aim, and can therefore trust each other and work together effectively. More specifically, they can disagree without quarreling, are happy to exchange information and ideas, and feel sufficiently secure to take the risks and embrace the change associated with innovation.

A good example is the product development team at the Ford Motor Company before and after the First World War. Before the war, the team was held together by Henry Ford’s strong purpose – the individuals involved were swept along by his vision of mass production and a cheaper car for everyone. Despite Ford’s autocratic style and the lack of clear structure, the team worked together productively to create the first moving assembly line in the industry and to increase output some 40 fold in seven years. After the war the team lost their shared purpose: there was no longer a sense that what they were doing was of the moment, a true response to the environment; it was just the will of one man. The result was turf wars and frustrations, leading in turn to regular defections to GM and a loss of impetus and direction. What had changed was not company structure, systems or strategy. Rather, it was the extent to which managers shared a common purpose.

Purpose replaces bureaucracy

Successful innovation requires breaking away from the status quo and meticulous focus on a clearly defined goal. Neither task will be accomplished unless driven by the innovator’s sense of purpose. And even the best idea won’t become a successful innovation unless the innovator’s purpose is shared across the organization, informing the strategy, and mobilizing employees toward a common goal.

Purpose helps innovators see beyond current convention, counters the natural risk aversion that large companies have to innovation, and mobilizes employees to accomplish their goal. In short, Purpose-driven innovation is the only way to change the rules of the game for lasting advantage.

  1. Thomas Edison, quoted by Jackson and Nelson (2004)
  2. Jeffrey Cruikshank ‘The Apple Way’ (2006)
  3. Clive Humby and Terry Hunt with Tim Phillips ‘Scoring Points’ (2003)
  4. Bernard Burnes ‘Managing Change’ (3rd edition 2000)
  5. For example W Tsai and S Ghoshal ‘Social capital and value creation: the role of intra-firm networks’ (Academy of Management Journal 41(4) – 1998).