Innovate with purpose

What motivates entrepreneurs?

In the late 1860’s Henri Nestlé invented the Infant Cereal. Nestlé was a true entrepreneur. Coming from a middle class family he started several more or less successful businesses. In those times infant mortality in Europe was as high as 15-25% (1). He himself had lost 7 of his 13 siblings at a young age. Henri and his wife Clémentine were childless and these circumstances inspired Nestlé to spend years of development in an effort to create a worthy substitute for breast milk. His relentless work driven by purpose and passion laid the foundation for what is today the worlds largest food and beverage company.

In 1953, another entrepreneur, Lennart Lindblad founded the auto repair shop that was to become Autoliv. Already in 1956 he launched the company’s first safety product, the safety belt. Today Autoliv is a multinational company with 60.000 employees and operations in 28 countries. The purpose and values that still underpin the innovations of Autoliv are clear: “Our vision is to substantially reduce traffic accidents, fatalities and injuries.” “We have a passion for saving lives.”

Entrepreneurs, such as these great innovators, have always been motivated by goals other than just financial gain. They are often driven by a desire to fix a problem, to make a difference in people’s lives.

Think about Uber. When Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp founded Uber they wanted to make it as easy as possible for a customer to get a taxi ride. Inspired by the challenge they had themselves experienced when trying to catch a cab, they set our to create a service that would get you a ride at “a touch of a button”. Now Uber’s crowd-sourced taxi service is active in over 290 cities globally and serves 1 million customers daily.

The founders of all three companies above were not motivated by wealth even though they received their fair share. Instead what drove them was a purpose to solve a problem they believed was important, and it was this passion that fueled their innovation efforts. In the words of Steve Jobs “If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you”.

In the book The Tao of Innovation (2) professor Teng-Kee Tan makes the case that the difficult path of innovation requires the kind of passion and resilience that can be supported only through a purpose greater than financial gain. And he is not alone in his thinking. Today, 91% of global consumers are ready to shift to a brand that is associated with a good cause (3).

How to unleash innovation in your company

As illustrated by the examples above, to innovate with purpose makes good business sense, irrespective if the original purpose is altruistic or of a more practical nature. Granted the examples are all about starting up a company. But we argue, and have repeatedly experienced, that the ambition to resolve problems that impact people’s lives as well as society and the purpose that this inspires is equally relevant for established companies. Here’s what you can start doing to unleash innovation in your company:

Set aspirational goals for your business
While we are all in the business of making an honest buck businesses should look beyond the obvious financial or market goals when defining your strategy. Ask yourself “why you are in this business” instead of “what you do”. What you aspire to achieve defines your purpose and can drive innovation in a more compelling and meaningful way.

Seek to engage your employees
Innovating with purpose is all about generating passion. Engage your organization by being passionate and explicit in your communication. Talk about innovation as a way to positively impact your customers, employee’s and society and be explicit about how you believe your company can contribute in making that happen. We often hear leaders speak about innovation in terms of: “We need to regain growth in our core markets – Let’s innovate!”; “You have freedom to do what you want 20 % of your time!”; “Our goal is to increase our market share” etc. These cries for action are very internally focused and although it will certainly stimulate some these goals will not engage the whole organization. For that you need passion and for passion you need purpose.

A Costa Rican company leads the way

We recently had the pleasure to work with a visionary CEO and his ambitious staff in Costa Rica. The company, FIFCO, has made the journey above. Since several years FIFCO operates a Triple Bottom Line strategy. The company invests a substantial part of their turnover in Corporate Social Responsibility activities and has been very effective in engaging employees in volunteering work for example (4). The CEO now sought a way to translate this drive into competitive advantage by setting a strategy for growth that combines innovation and the Triple Bottom Line. The result of their work is a strategy that delivers a clear connection between the brands and their desire to deliver benefit to their customers, consumers of their products, the environment and society (5). FIFCO strongly believes that if they achieve this then their business will grow in a sustainable way.

The connection between strategy and innovation

At FIFCO and others we have seen great result from applying the principle that strategy development needs to answer 4 key questions:

1. Where will we lead and how will we transform ourselves?
2. Who will we become and what role do we play?
3. What do we believe drives this choice?
4. How we will get from where we are today to where we need to be?

Business leaders need to develop their own perspectives before they start to answer these questions, e.g. what changes will take place in the marketplace and broader society, what are the rules that we believe we need to play by to be successful (and could potentially break), what are we uniquely good at now, and what unexploited opportunities can we explore etc.

Purpose emerges as a result of developing perspectives to address these 4 questions. Our role as consultants is to inspire and facilitate this dialogue to ensure it moves beyond the client’s comfort zone and introduce strategic stretch and purpose into the mix.

Try a different way to develop your next strategy

For successful businesses like Nestlé, Autoliv, Uber and FIFCO, purpose defines the role they want to play in the future they aim to help shape. It is driven by a desire to have a positive impact on the lives of consumers and customers and to engage their employees in building the future of the company. Having a clear purpose will outperform more traditional strategy development because it will help you unleash a passion to innovate in your organization.

(1) Henri Nestlé 1814 – 1890, Nestle SA
(2) The Tao of Innovation, Teng-Kee Tan
(3) 2013 Cones Communications/Echo Global CRS study
(4) Florida Ice & Farm: Sustainability champion from an emerging economy, John C. Ickis et al., INCEA Business school, 2013, page 9
(5) Developing a growth strategy for People, Planet and Profit, FIFCO case,

By: Carl Hamilton and Michel van Hove


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