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Josh Macht: Why a strong sense of purpose fuels the innovation process

At our recent offsite, The Harvard Business Review Group asked one of our long time contributors to talk to us about innovation. His name is Vijay Govindarajan, the Coxe Distinguished professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. Govindarajan is an expansive thinker who is probably best known for his insights into how companies create new offerings—especially big, established corporations such as GE.

Ok, we’re not as big as GE, but at HBR we certainly worry about our heritage and brand. The question is, How do we respect our brand’s identity, but keep trying new things to expand our options for tomorrow? No easy task. And we’re not the only ones facing it. This is the central problem for just about every publisher who once upon a time had a reputation in the old world and now wants a stake in the new.

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Govindarajan has a wonderful analogy here. He says that a big established company is much like a tree with deep roots: “You never want to cut the roots because the tree will die. The roots are your heritage. But you also don’t want to be chained to the past.” For Govindarajan, transformation is a deliberative process that must be cultivated through well-structured experiments and adaptation. To succeed over the long-haul, established players must “forget, borrow, and learn”—taking advantage of key assets and attributes, while shedding past practices that no longer create value for their core customers.

The approach seems to make a ton of sense, but for some reason it doesn’t work for everyone. Some companies appear to be more capable of unchaining themselves from the past than others. But why? My hunch is that it comes down to a sense of purpose.

For publications that still have a strong purpose fueling their editorial engines, change can be both scary and exhilarating. Scary because you worry about losing your identity, and yet exhilarating because there is a sense of freedom that comes with the thought of unchaining oneself from an idealised past. This dynamic—balancing a strong sense of who you are with who you want to become—sets the stage for the sort of measured experimentation that Govindarajan describes in his work.

I’ve seen first-hand how this approach can move an established organisation forward. At HBR, we’ve made progress with new digital elements by starting with small experiments that give us a broader indication of how things like interactive tools, bloggers, video, and infographics can enhance our mission online. 

But we can all recognise when a publication has lost its way. No longer rooted in any rich soil, some publications tend to drift from one identity to another. I remember having this feeling when I was at Business 2.0 years ago. I suppose some may feel this way about the newsweeklies as well. When you’re drifting, it seems as though experimentation only exacerbates your problems, serving to confuse readers even further about what your brand really stands for. 

Part of the genius in applying the Govindarajan approach is that you need to seek a balance between forgetting and borrowing. For those who lack a clear sense of what they do for their readers—what they do that no one else can do as well—they may have forgotten too much. In these cases, experimentation may just lead down a path to nowhere.

But there’s an even bigger issue at play here as well. It’s becoming tougher than ever for publishers who lack a clear sense of purpose to survive. The old tricks of luring a zillion eyeballs from Google and spinning them into gold from advertisers is becoming less and less viable. The reality is that if your digital activities don’t enhance your core reason for being, as well as expand your audience, you could be in real trouble down the road. You need both parts of the equation, not one or the other.

Innovation is certainly key for all of us going forward, and unchaining ourselves from the past is a worthy goal. But we also need a deeply rooted understanding of why the customer craves us in the first place. Without it, we may unlock our chains, but not much else.

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