This is a moment for personal and organizational reinvention

Innovation must have purpose, writes Sanyin Siang

Google the words ‘innovation and business’ and you’ll get nearly a billion results, showing just how far innovation occupies the minds of business leaders today. And why not? In a volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous (VUCA) world, the rules that our predecessors operated by no longer seem to apply. The effects of change are seen everywhere: in new manufacturing techniques, changes in consumer behaviour, unforeseen electoral results. Wherever you look, the status quo no longer seems to cut it.

Whether in good times or crises, business leaders should strive to innovate. The world today faces the prospect of the greatest economic downturn in a century. Numerous industries will be overturned; ‘working’ may never be the same again. Already, we have seen companies like Twitter offer their employees a permanent work-from-home option. Retail and the food-service sector might have to lean into automation in order to keep their industries afloat. The consequences of the coronavirus pandemic are endless.

It’s all too easy to default to a state of fear about what’s to come and a defensive mindset of prevention. But if we accept that change is needed, the question that follows is: do we know what to change? The scale of change makes it hard to know where to focus. The old adage ‘don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater’, adds to our worry. We should certainly fix what’s broke, but should we also fix what isn’t?

The guiding principle is understanding the purpose of the organization. I recently gave a talk on ‘Daring to Thrive’. I was asked how we can up-end the status quo – it seems so hard. I responded with a different question: is the status quo living up to the mission and purpose of the company? The context in which we all live is constantly changing, so how we best live out our mission also has to change. Leaders must ask if the current way of doing things – processes, business lines, technology – is the best expression of their organization’s purpose.

The risks of stagnation are clear. Remember Kodak? It once dominated its industry, thanks to cutting-edge technology, and excelled in its mission to help people capture memories. But the context changed: how people captured memories shifted from print to digital. The company struggled to adapt because it focused on defence of its technology rather than defence of its mission.

A devotion to the purpose, rather than the product, is essential to overcome drastic, market-shaking events. It is the best defence against a competitor undercutting your company with its own innovation. It provides a sense of focus for employees and wins increased buy-in, while guiding company executives to operate in a strategic manner. Sticking to your purpose can help concretize your goals in times of uncertainty.

This applies equally to personal innovation and reinvention. As the job market undergoes a massive shift, many people are struggling with how they can adapt their current skills, and asking what new skills they should invest in. If that’s you, ask: how are you living out your aspirations to make a difference in the world – to pursue your purpose, while being able to make a living? Go beyond the defence of your immediate short-term goals, and look instead at the bigger long-term questions of who you are.

If more leaders embrace reinvention in their own lives and their businesses, the difference will be felt by organizations and consumers alike. Your innovation, anchored in purpose and deeper meaning, might just inspire others to seize the moment and up-end their own status quo too.

— Sanyin Siang is executive director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE) at Duke University