How often does innovation stall because people are unclear about why they’re innovating?  How often do you find that the spark has gone out of innovation teams?

I’m coming to the view that what is missing is a clear view of ‘meaning’ in innovation.  In this context I use the word ‘meaning’ in the sense of an overarching goal, a context, a purpose.  Why are we innovating?  What’s the big picture?  What’s the grand challenge?

Conversations with colleagues and clients frequently throw up instances of organisations that cannot clearly articulate what innovation means to their companies, to their brands or to their products and services.  In other words, they cannot describe what innovation means to their proposition to customers.  There’s no clear meaning to their innovation.

I am currently working with a team on a big transformation project for a state science and research institution and we are embarking upon crafting their research strategy.  Their chief executive is a visionary and wants his organisation to choose and address global grand challenges on a horizon of 20 years.  This is a spectacular opportunity.  Here is a chance to articulate long-term goals that R&D teams can work towards via a series of intermediate steps, each useful in their own right.  The intermediate projects will be targeted with delivering useful innovative contributions to the nation’s current and near-term problems.  And also, such projects are stepping stones towards solving national and global issues of massive scope and scale.  The organisation will build capabilities that are foundations for significant contributions, motivated by a big picture – and real meaning.  The teams will know the meaning of their work.

So what’s the commercial equivalent? Product briefs and specifications aren’t enough to drive innovation.  Screening criteria in innovation pipelines don’t capture meaning or grand challenges.  Instead, building a stream of exciting innovation depends upon holding a clear picture of the real meaning of innovation.  So this means articulating the meaning of innovation in the proposition.

And then communicating that to both the customer and to the innovators.

So, finding the best way of adding meaning to innovation is keeping me busy right now.