How to innovate the way you innovate


Putting purpose at the heart of your business helps to put the ‘why’ behind your ‘what’ and triggers product innovation, says Steve Fuller from brand consultancy The House.

The future belongs to companies with purpose – they grow faster, attract the best talent and inspire customers. And the evidence shows that purpose can also inspire and push forward innovation.

At the most basic level, a shared purpose nudges organisations to become more democratic. By focusing more on shared purpose, you focus less on yourself. This creates a more open and collaborative environment: as we like to say, ‘nobody is cleverer than everyone’.

Purpose is more than ‘mood music’ for innovation, however. It’s also a powerful strategic lens for your business or organisation. As we explain below, we’ve seen it create products like Comfort One- Rinse that do more with less. We’ve seen it spur Tesla to (metaphorically) tear up its patents and embrace open source R&D for electric batteries, and carpet tile manufacturer Interface to create whole new collaborative business networks.

Why do we call purpose an innovation ‘lens’? Think of the lens of a telescope. On the one hand, a lens can help you look further and wider. It’s the same with purpose. By taking a step back and considering the “why” behind the “what” – the purpose behind the product – organisations can look at problems in a new light and consider new avenues of product and service development. Let’s say you make fertiliser. Are you a chemicals company, or a company that exists to improve agricultural yields and protect farmers’ livelihoods? Maybe there are other “whats” that serve your “why”.

On the other hand, a lens helps you focus your view. Purpose helps you to filter all of these newfound possibilities around a clear ‘reason to exist’. It creates a powerful logic to underpin your business and innovation strategy and lets innovators and leaders constantly ask themselves whether new products, services, reforms and expansions truly fit with the firm’s shared beliefs and direction.


Unilever’s “Comfort One-Rinse” washing detergent is a great example of a purpose- led product innovation.

Over 700 million people worldwide lack steady access to clean water. Spurred on by its audacious purpose of doubling its revenues while halving its environmental impact, Unilever set the lab coats a new problem to solve. For once, they weren’t asked “how can we make the whites even whiter?” Instead, the challenge was to make a detergent that can clean fabric using as little water as possible.

The result was Comfort One-Rinse, a handwashing detergent that has helped families in Asia and South Africa use 75 per cent less water when washing clothes. In other words, this is an entirely commercial product that is delivering customer and environmental benefit through purpose- inspired innovation.


Purpose-led innovation can also help firms change the way they organise themselves. Take Jos de Blok, founder of Dutch healthcare provider Buurtzorg. “Buurtzorg” is Dutch for “neighbourhood care”. Its purpose is to “change and improve the delivery and quality of home healthcare through the leadership and collaboration of the community nurse.”

A former nurse, de Blok has developed a radical, nurse-led approach to organising home health care. Nurses form self- directed teams of up to 12 and eschew top-down administrative management. This model gives nurses the autonomy and tools to work to their highest ability. More time with patients allows for more holistic, preventative treatments: nurses act as a health ‘navigator’ for the patient, giving the patients in turn as much independence and autonomy as possible.

De Blok’s ideas could revolutionise how we think about the way we build and grow organisations – and again, de Blok’s radical innovation springs from the purpose of providing the best possible care for patients.


At its most powerful, purpose can help you innovate the way you innovate.

In particular, we’ve seen that embracing purpose tends to push people towards more open, collaborative and partnership-driven modes of innovation. Take electric car pioneer Tesla’s decision to “open source” its patents and allow the world’s brightest minds to help us find better ways to drive – whether they draw a Tesla paycheck or not. The decision carries its own business risks and opportunities, but ultimately reflects Tesla’s view that it needs to collaborate in order to achieve its purpose of fighting climate change through battery technology. An even more inspiring example is American carpet tile manufacturer Interface’s “Net-Works” programme.

In 1994, Interface CEO Ray Anderson adopted “Mission Zero” with the goal of having zero negative environmental impact by 2020. Interface had the wisdom to realise that this couldn’t be achieved alone. “Net-Works” is just one example of a partnership-led approach to innovation. Interface partnered with nylon producer Aquafil, the Zoological Society of London and Danajon Bank of the Philippines to create an inclusive community enterprise network based around the recycling of discarded fishing nets.

Through Net-Works, coastal communities in the Philippines collect and sell old nets to Aquafil and Interface, who recycle and convert them into carpet tiles. This provides communities with additional income to supplement traditional fishing industries, keeps the oceans clear of debris that might harm sea life, and provides Interface with recycled fibres to make environmentally- sound carpet tiles.

Net-Works also created a system of community banks that allows locals to save the additional income and invest in education. This had a powerful effect on community resilience when Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippine coast.

All told, inspiring great innovation is yet another reason why companies of all shapes and sizes should consider putting purpose at their heart.