I just returned from a weekend workshop on “fulfillment”. Great word, right? Meaning, purpose, passion, and happiness all rolled up into one. At least, that’s how I think about it. But when you go look up the definition you get something like this — “the achievement of something desired, promised, or predicted”.
There is often more nuance to words than the dictionary can provide. I’m not a linguist, but I would guess that the meanings of words evolve over time, tracking the culture they are part of.
The word I spend a lot of time thinking about and ascribing meaning to is innovation. It has an equally drab definition in the dictionary — “a new method, idea, product, etc”. But if you’ve spent any time trying to “innovate”, you may have concluded (like I have) that “new” isn’t enough to be considered “innovative”.
So let’s ascribe some more meaning. Letting go of “levels” of innovation (small, medium, large… “iterative” or “disruptive”), I think that innovation is a new method or product in service of a desired outcome. This is what distinguishes it from “creativity” which can be done just for the sake of creating, or for the joy of the creative process.
I pulled out the word “idea” because ideas aren’t solving anything when they are in the idea state. They are potential innovation, but they are not innovation… yet. You don’t know whether the idea will help with the desired outcome until you try it.
In today’s culture, the outcome that the innovation is in service of is most often making money. I am not overtly judging that kind of innovation (or at least, I’m trying not to!), but in this weekend workshop, I found my purpose emerged as “inspiring heart-centered innovation”.
So what is it?
Heart-centered innovation is creating in service of a meaningful outcome.
Read on for the “ingredients”. I’ll assume we can all agree on “creating”. So let’s talk about “in service of an outcome” and “meaningful”.
In service of an outcome
My brother-in-law as a religious speaker and also holds workshops on storytelling. I was talking with him this past Thanksgiving about my interest in design thinking and innovation and he said “oh, these Google guys came in and did a workshop on that for this church I worked with recently in Austin”. I asked him to tell me more.
It turns out the church was trying to bring in more young people. Their problem statement was something like “how do we bring more young people into our congregation?”. Then they got some “Google guys” to volunteer to help them with a design thinking workshop. Presumably, they tried to build empathy for the community’s young people so they could come up with programs that might be attractive to them.
That’s great, but… If you really want to innovate on behalf of some group of people, constraining the solutions to what you’ve already decided you want to do for them is limiting. And will probably mean that the solution you provide fails to generate the positive impact you intend.
To truly be in service of an outcome, you need to take away your preconceived notions of what is in the solution set.
In this case, the constraint was that the young people had to come to the church. In the high tech industry, it’s that the outcome requires people to use your product or service.
Now that I see this, I see it everywhere. People that study nutrition assume that what you put in your body is the answer. Churches assume it’s their religion. Psychologists assume that therapy will help. Physical therapists assume there is some exercise you can do. Drug companies assume it involves a drug.
Most people have a center from which they see the problems around them. A sun that everything revolves around. This leaves it up to the person who has the problem to do a lot of filtering among solutions, often with no way of knowing which option is best.
What if we didn’t do that? Instead, looking at all possibilities for generating the outcome we are hoping for?
There are organizations doing this I know. The ones I am aware of are all non-profits. The Center for Humane Technology comes to mind as a great example. A very clear problem statement and they are innovating solutions on 4 fronts. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation comes to mind as well.
Would this work in for-profit? My years of being in for-profit (high-tech) would tell me a strong “NO!”. But there is nothing preventing it from happening as far as I can see. Providing true value to the world often involves extracting value in return.
What is a meaningful outcome? Meaning is very much in the eye of the beholder. I think the only requirement is that the conversation is first and foremost about the outcome. The impact you want to create. The value you want to provide. The people you want to serve. And extracting value is secondary.
When you set targets for yourself they aren’t in terms of usage or revenue. Instead, they are in terms of your hopes and dreams for how the world is a better place.
Almost everything we create can shift to this perspective. If you are creating furniture, maybe you want people to be beautifully supported in their lives at home or at work. If you make shampoo, maybe you want people to look and feel great about themselves, empowering them to do great things.
I have spent my entire adult life successfully generating technology that makes money. Sometimes revenue was primary. Sometimes it was being first. Sometimes it was serving customer needs. Sometimes it was technology. Sometimes it was growth. It has never been about the meaningful outcome we were trying to create.
I write this with a sense of vulnerability and even dread. That I am ridiculously naive. And at the same time that it is so obvious it doesn’t need to be said.
But when I think about working in an organization that genuinely focuses on heart-centered innovation, it feels full of possibility. So… here goes… hitting the publish button 🙏.
If you want help with heart-centered innovation, please reach out!