Fantastic goals are often needed to mobilise an organisation’s native innovation capacity
For the past couple of deliveries I have been focusing on the “dual system” of innovation, and more specifically, using a “Skunk Works” model as a means to take innovation out of the core of the business and pursue innovation “outside” of the business.
As an afterthought, I watched a documentary on the Skunk Works on television the past week, focusing mainly on the life of Kelly Johnson and the technological breakthroughs that were achieved in aviation by the Skunk Works.
Having watched the documentary, I realized that there were also a lot of “spy stuff” involved in the Skunk Works, which possibly also had an influence on their innovation efforts, to which “ordinary” organisations may not necessarily be exposed. Nevertheless, what the Skunk Works achieved in those days are certainly miraculous.
One of the Skunk Work principles is to set stretch goals. This means that the goal must be of such a nature that it pushes the limits of what is possible. This sounds extreme but there is solid evidence that this kind of goal setting has a positive influence on innovation efforts. Let’s dig deeper.
The impact of stretch goals on innovation:
Let us first take a quick look at the psychology behind goal setting. I am not trying to be Sigmund Freud here, but if I reason it out for myself, it goes something like this:
Innovation is about taking action – I have emphasized numerous times in these articles that there is no innovation without execution and implementation. For action to happen, humans need to be motivated, i.e. a very basic example, you are motivated by hunger to take action to feed yourself, whether it is to go and hunt in the prehistoric age, or prepare yourself a meal, or go and buy takeaways.
Goal setting is a powerful motivator, the value of which has been recognized in an abundance of clinical and real-world research. Goal setting theory is based on the premise that conscious goals affect action and that conscious human behaviour is purposeful and regulated by individual goals.
Simply put, we must decide what is beneficial to our own welfare and set goals to achieve it.
Linking this to innovation, uncertainty and the risk of failure are inherent in innovation, thus humans require “more” motivation to take action on innovation. However, goals affect the intensity of our actions and our emotions – the more difficult and valued a goal, the more intense our efforts will be to attain it, and the more success we experience following achievement.
Let me explain this with a well-known example. On 25 May 1961, President John F. Kennedy of the United States stood before a joint session of Congress and announced, “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth”.
That vision galvanized thousands of employees with vastly different roles — everyone from astronauts to cleaning crew members — around the common goal of a lunar landing, and eight years later, that goal was achieved.
While business leaders don’t need to set such lofty goals, I am making the point here that by setting an inspirational goal, people (innovators) get motivated and inspired to take action to achieve what was previously though unachievable.
To make this practical in your business, leaders need to provide the framework for business value with business supported innovation goals. Is there a new market that you wish to enter? Is there a product line you need to revitalize? Are you in a business that you need to reinvent and recast for your future? Do you need to rethink your business model to create a better path to you customer?
Every business has some key strategic issues that can be addressed through innovation. It is the responsibility of leadership to prioritize and articulate those issues in a tangible and compelling way with stretch goals for innovation. By setting stretch goals for innovation, you provide motivation and inspiration to your innovation workers to go above and beyond.
There is a lot of information available on proper goal setting, it almost has become a whole subject on its own, so I do not want to dwell on its detail. But I do want to remind you that when you set your business’ goals, make sure to do it for innovation as well, and make it extremely challenging, e.g.: We will solve this problem for the customer in such a manner that it reduces waiting time by 90% by this date – and watch the magic happen!
I also made the case that innovation is stimulated by imposing constraints, so I will dwell deeper on this topic in the next delivery.
I conclude with a quote from Jim Rohn: “Goals. There’s no telling what you can do when you get inspired by them. There’s no telling what you can do when you believe in them. And there’s no telling what will happen when you act upon them.”