Innovation is a widely used term, and as with many other words, its meaning keeps evolving. Lately it has become more of a proxy for developing a new high-tech thing. But what is innovation really for?
After 30+ years of a successful business career, I founded The House of Purpose to help develop the human side at work, what most people call “soft” skills; we are kind of anti-tech. As any proactive entrepreneur, I knocked on the door of all the start-up incubators in my area, but I was rejected from all the local ones and even from a Federal Government program (BCIP) designed to buy first-time innovations. The thanks-but-no-thanks notes, all very politely said pretty much the same thing: no gadget, no app or software…no match. Things eventually worked out for us, and we are now revenue positive, but I still hear from potential customers that our product is too new for them.
So here we are, feeling the typical start-up growing pains, but with no support from the start-up community or the federal government (yes, the one with an innovation agenda). In the end, none of this will matter because we have the most important thing: passion for a better way to solve a real problem.
Role of Innovation
I kept thinking about who innovation is really serving today; and about how is the start-up community shaping our beliefs system around innovation. Innovation has been in the corporate jargon since at least the 1980’s. In my days at P&G and PepsiCo we used to think that we were always looking for new ways to solve real problems, i.e. how to get clothes clean and soft better and quicker so people could go back to being mothers, or executives, or do whatever they wanted to do. We might have not agreed on whether we were creating new problems or simply approaching new ways to save the same ones, but it was always about finding a better way to solve a real problem for consumers, and the end benefit was always the same: happy customers. Then technology became more pervasive and in the last few decades innovation has been looking more like a race to catch up to the latest technological advancement. The meaning of innovation has drastically shifted to technology integration.
What should innovation be for, if not for making people’s lives better. After 30 years of technological boom, the average North American is not happier or healthier, but we are all more “connected”, and we all have more “friends” and “followers” all over the world. One in six of us take antidepressants, and three of every four are overweight; we fight more, care less about others, and the new generations will have a harder time surviving climate change or even buying their own house. If not the people, who is innovation serving with the trillions of dollars in stock market wealth. Clearly investors have been well served.
Finding Deeper Purpose
Today it seems that we don’t innovate to make people’s lives better but to get rich. Investors’ needs should be taken care of, but we should focus our attention on how all the start-up hype and new technology frenzy will help the average person live a better life. The important question is: how are we entrepreneurs solving the real problems of today’s world.
We seem to have enough things to do online already, but we are lagging in off-line connection. The so-called “soft” skills at work, the ones that build strong relationships and not wide virtual networks have been neglected and we already feel the consequences with the new generations. We need to learn from new science how to be better humans, and care, not “follow” or “like” each other online. The need for non-tech innovation is there, waiting for someone to try to solve these problems without a new app.
Don’t take me wrong, I am an investor in my company and I want to make money, lots of it, but this is not enough reason to spring out of bed every morning. To keep building a new idea you need to have a clear purpose, and not one with only a dollar sign attached to it. As an entrepreneur, I ask myself this question everyday: how are we helping others live better lives? what problem are we solving, and can we do it in a better way? I am curious to see if every entrepreneur asks themselves the same question and, not only, how are they going to get rich.
Contributor: Javier Santos, MBA, ACC. Mr. Santos has 30+ years as a Sales Executive, Sales Consultant and Executive Coach. He founded The House of Purpose to help people and organizations become a better version of themselves; through training and development programs with a purpose-driven approach and methods based in Neuroscience.