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In our last post, we listed four factors that lead to successful idea generation and implementation: sensitivity to the market, dissatisfaction with the status quo, focus on shared goals (which leads to discipline in a team of innovators), and trust and continuity to facilitate the free flow of ideas. Purpose strengthens all of these factors and makes them more impactful.

Sensitivity to others is not a form of weakness but a form of compassion.

Purposeful innovators are less likely to rely on past learning to understand the needs they are trying to meet. That is because purpose in itself is a response to the environment. Purpose causes an innovator to engage forcefully.

As an example, Henry Ford was constantly looking for opportunities to exercise his company’s power. This was not an obligation alone; he considered it as pleasure. Steve Jobs envisioned technology transforming the way things work because he had purpose, especially to discover the new. His vision in developing the iPod, iPhone and iPad was to achieve excellence. As he put it, he wanted to create computers that were “insanely great.”

None of these ideas came from nowhere. They didn’t drop like an apple on someone’s head. They were needed and purposeful because they were a moral and timely response to social and technological changes that were happening around us. They were an expression of a worthy cause at a fundamental level, the most impactful responses to outside circumstances.

Great minds have purpose, little minds have wishes.

Purpose-driven innovation is effective because it matters. Innovators are sensitive to the outside and inside worlds. They feel what is going on out there, as well as what people want and will engage with. They don’t create alone in their solitary minds. The best companies don’t create in a vacuum. As Jobs explained, the goal was to “make the best computers in the world and make the best software in the world.” This meant working on what really mattered to users. Jonathan Ive, the designer of the iPod and the iMac said it clearly: “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.”

The rest is history.

But it is not just the pursuit of excellence that produces greater sensitivity. Over the last decade Whole Foods, IDEO, Google, and Zappos are great examples of major corporations that have used traditional for-profit structures to scale their growth while implementing many untraditional practices that are motivated by purpose:

  • Whole Foods created Community Giving Days where 5 percent of that day’s net sales are given to local nonprofits to support the community.
  • Google invested in creating an exceptional work environment with themed work spaces, slides between floors, free gourmet food and radical amounts of employee autonomy. Sure, it helps employees to work longer but it also feels them connected to Google’s vision.
  • IDEO worked with CO-OP to solve financial challenges by offering their services to communities who needs them most.

Enlightened companies are increasingly aware that delivering empathy for their customers, employees, and the public is a powerful tool for improving profits. Sensitivity can be learned and companies can improve. Enlightened leadership can create a more sensitive and empathetic culture. Empathy is not only a soft nurturing value but a hard commercial tool that every business needs as part of their DNA.

Next week we will discuss how dissatisfaction with the status quo drives purpose.

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