As I visit and observe what I call the "existential festivals" – events like Burning Man, SXSW, TED, Sundance, Bonnaroo, and ArtPrize, for example – I ask myself, "What are people really trying to accomplish here – besides just having fun?"
The answer I've come away with – after quite a bit of pondering – is that people are trying to use these events to help them make meaning out of their worlds.
Anytime people strive toward this goal, whether through events such as these or through other means such as spiritual retreats, we call the effort "meaning–making".
Meaning–making refers to all of our attempts – both as individuals and as organizations – to make meaning of our world. It is a fundamentally human and somewhat philosophical, if not spiritual, undertaking. We see it in our collective attempts as a society to come together and explore the deeper realm of purpose behind the things we do. We see it every time a business posts a statement of purpose or mission (or at least a good one). And we see it every time an individual has a crisis of identity and goes in search of a new career. In each of these cases, people – and businesses – are searching for some sense of purpose and meaning in what it is they find themselves doing in the world.
How innovative and successful organizations impart purpose & meaning
But one need not attend a festival such as these to engage in meaning–making. Instead, many now – Millennials and Gen Zers in particular – are looking to their vocations to try to make meaning out of their worlds. However, depending on the particular situation, that may or may not prove fruitful.
Indeed, many workplaces make this difficult to do because the endeavors the business is pursuing are so anemic and "me–too" as to not really seem all that significant in the scheme of the world at large.
This is where – and here is our first big "a–ha" for today – real, meaningful innovation comes into play. That sort of innovation – truly transformative innovation – is – like art itself – inherently about meaning–making. It is an expression of our collective search as an organization for meaning and purpose. Internally, it forces us to deeply evaluate our place and purpose in the world. Externally, it allows us to express what meaning we are able to make of the world through compelling new forms of customer value and customer experience. And inside of this process, it empowers us to feel fulfilled with a true sense of purpose, meaning, and impact on the world. Altogether, that ends up being an incredibly powerful experience!
But why is this? What is going on here? The answer to that question is... it is so because there is this deep sense of causality between the things that we as businesses create and deliver – new products, new services, new experiences, new business models – and how purpose and meaning come to be realized in the world, both internally for the business and externally for its customers. The things that we make for our customers – the value that we deliver to them – is ultimately an expression both of who we are and of who they are. They are what allow us to ultimately make meaning of our world. Indeed, the act alone of trying to deliver more and better value to the world is a uniquely human act and an expression of meaning–making. Want evidence of this? Just read Tracy Kidder's classic book The Soul of a New Machine, where in 1979 the Data General engineers poured their hearts and souls into trying to develop a new market-leading mainframe. Or ask any business founder whose business has radically transformed society. They will tell you that theirs was a labor of love, precisely because it was an expression of purpose and meaning for them.
Innovation therefore – doing things in new and novel ways that deliver more value and better experiences for our customers (and that are profitable for the business) – is itself an act of meaning–making, both personally and professionally. The sooner that business leaders understand this, the sooner they will be able to harness innovation's power to energize their organizations and ultimately pave the way toward market leadership. They must realize however, that this search for purpose and meaning is in fact one without end, or in the words of the U2 song Where the Streets Have No Name... "But I still... haven't found... what I'm looking for." It is a search that will keep their business fully engaged for as long as they choose to pursue it.
And even more broadly, when viewed across the business world as a whole, we see that innovation – real, meaningful, innovation – is moving us all toward a more purpose-driven world. We see this in the many "NewCos" around us... startups with a purpose and mission in the world, leveraging technology and venture capital to bring the sorts of transformative innovations to the world that "comfortable" "OldCos" no longer have the "hunger" and desire to pursue. These NewCos – on account of their hunger – often go deeper on understanding customers' real situational and contextual needs and motivations... their broader desired and expected outcomes, and the many causalities involved, and they deliver real new value – real innovation – against those situations. This is why they sometimes win out against entrenched incumbents and disrupt them.
This being the case then, it is easy to see how that businesses pursuing initiatives that are truly different and truly transformative – initiatives that radically change how the world works – offer their workers the opportunity to feel like they can, in fact, make real meaning of the world.
What does it take to pursue transformative innovations?
In other words, businesses pursuing truly transformative innovations – businesses like Amazon, SpaceX, and even IBM – who are developing new things that will radically change the world and turn its markets on their heads – are the ones pursuing the sorts of initiatives that let workers truly feel as though they are able to make great meaning of their worlds.
After all, meaning-making requires us – both as individuals and as organizations – to constantly renew and reshape our worldviews – not just of business, markets, and competition – but, indeed, of our own humanity and our respective places in the world.
So hopefully we can all see and understand now, how that businesses pursuing real, meaningful innovations are the sorts of places that allow us as their workers to better make meaning of the world. Of course, not all organizations can be an Amazon, SpaceX, or IBM, but all organizations can pursue real, meaningful innovation in their own particular market space. Aside from purely commodity markets, there are few situations where this can't be done, so long as the business is willing and "hungry" enough to actually go out and do it.
This is where, therefore – and here is our second big "a-ha" for today – being a truly innovation-driven organization – one that is constantly pursuing an innovation-driven growth strategy (as opposed to a sales-driven or acquisition-driven growth strategy) comes into play. Such organizations know how to incorporate meaningful, impactful, and sometimes even transformative innovations into their portfolios.
More importantly – and pay very careful attention here – the impact of doing this does not end with just those working on such endeavors. No indeed! Rather it extends much deeper into the organization and inherently makes it the sort of organization that – purely on account of having this "hunger" to be a market driver and thus pursue these things – understands the need to constantly renew and reinvent itself... the sort of organization that embraces the reality of uncertainty and change all around it and eagerly awaits the new opportunities those present... the sort of organization that is committed to shaping its future as much as being shaped by its future. In other words, the very nature of being this sort of organization – of being driven by innovation – says something very crucial about the culture of the organization, and itself continues to inform and nurture that culture. It is a culture that has clearly articulated its purpose and mission in the world... a culture that lets it workers constantly question the world around them and then try to make meaning of it through the lens of that purpose and mission, and through the new initiatives they are pursuing for that purpose, whatever those may be.
And so here is our final point... ask yourself this question, "How do I transform my organization into this sort of organization... into a truly innovation-driven one – one that is capable of letting its workers make meaning of the world?" I am going to offer you a very brief two–part nutshell answer to that question, understanding that there are many details behind it. Here is the answer...
First, you must begin at the strategic level. At this level your business must do three things. Number one, it must figure out and openly articulate what its purpose and mission in the world is. This second part – articulating it openly – is just as important as is the first part, as having your people understand the purpose under which they are to operate drives passion, focus, and accountability in everything they do. Number two, your business must work hard on building a culture that openly and eagerly embraces the reality of constant and unrelenting change all around it. This is the only thing that is going to drive the "hunger" needed in the business to ensure its purpose and mission remain constantly relevant to the world. Otherwise, over time it will become complacent and at some point cease to be relevant. And number three, your business must formulate and execute a proper innovation-driven growth strategy – one that will direct and focus all of its efforts forward as it pursues this newly–articulated purpose and mission.
Secondly, you must turn your attention to the tactical level. At this level, your business has to express its purpose and mission by engaging with its customers and markets in new ways that allow both it and them to make better meaning of the world. This means – as we have been so well taught through Design Thinking – that we have to come to fully understand their situation and context, their values, priorities, and motivations, and ultimately their real outcome needs. In other words, we have to fully understand how value needs to be expressed in a way that empowers these customers to lead more fulfilled lives toward their own sense of purpose and meaning – whether or not those needs have been articulated explicitly.
If your business can succeed at these actions, then it can (over time) become the sort of (innovation-driven) organization that brings purpose and meaning to its place in the world... one that gives its workers a true sense of purpose and meaning in their own work, and thus allows them to make meaning of their worlds at large. I believe this is a goal worth striving for.
About the author
Anthony Mills is the Executive Director of Global Innovation Institute (GInI), CEO of Legacy Innovation Group, and adviser to several advisory boards. He is an established and influential business executive skilled in conceiving and driving transformational strategies that deliver growth, leadership, and profitability. He has led multiple new business launches in both Fortune 100 enterprises and new startups. From defining new business platforms and go-to-market strategies, to designing and delivering new product categories, he has successfully launched numerous new lines of business and filled a variety of roles along the way.