You cannot expect your team to be innovative if they do not know the direction in which they are headed, warns Paul Sloane.

You cannot expect your team to be innovative if they do not know the direction in which they are headed. Innovation must have a purpose. It is up to the leader to set the course and give a bearing for the future. This is set in broad terms and is described as the mission, core purpose or vision for the organization. Although each of these is different, they share much in common and whichever you choose, there should be one overarching statement which defines the direction for the business and which people will readily understand and remember.

Jack Welch, CEO of GE said, “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.”

As a leader you don’t want happy, comfortable people in your team. You want passionate, energetic people who are keen for the journey and ready to take on a challenge. Your job is to communicate a destination and to persuade them it is a target that they can believe in and a goal worth reaching. You can then ask them how best to reach the destination. Once you have established a vision that is inspiring you can ask people to be creative and innovative in moving towards it.

The vision or mission is the starting point for strategic plans, objectives and metrics. The key performance indicators of the business will measure how progress is made in meeting the goals that flow from the vision. Striving for the vision will always involve change. It is a journey from where we are today to a better future. There is a risk in making the changes necessary on this journey but the leader has to persuade people that there is a bigger risk in standing still. The organizations that have no vision for the future and no desire to change are the ones destined for obscurity and obsolescence.

You must paint a vision that is desirable, challenging and believable. If you can do this then there are three big gains for the organization:

  1. People share a common goal and have a sense of embarking on a journey or adventure together. This means they are more willing to accept the changes, challenges and difficulties that any journey can entail.
  2. It means that more responsibility can be delegated. Staff can be empowered and given more control over their work. Because they know the goal and direction in which they are headed, they can be trusted to steer their own raft and to figure out the best way of getting there.
  3. People will be more creative and contribute more ideas if they know that there are unsolved challenges that lie ahead. They have bought into the adventure so they are more ready to find routes over and around the obstacles on the way.

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Many mission statements are boring, long-winded, long on platitudes and short on inspiration. Here are some good ones:

  • Lego – To nurture the child in each of us.
  • Disney Corporation – To use our imagination to bring happiness to millions of people.
  • Merck – We are in the business of preserving and improving human life.
  • Tesco – To create value for customers to earn their lifetime loyalty.
  • 3M – To be the most innovative enterprise in the world.
  • WPP – To develop and manage talent; to apply that talent throughout the world for the benefit of clients; to do so in partnership; to do so for profit.
  • Glaxo, Smith, Kline – To improve the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer.

Just painting the picture is not enough. It quickly fades from view if it is not constantly reinforced. Great leaders spend time with their teams. They illustrate the vision, the goals and the challenges. They explain to people how their role is crucial in fulfilling the vision and meeting the challenges. They inspire men and women to become passionate entrepreneurs finding innovative routes to success.

Paul Sloane is the head of the BQF Innovation Unit. His website is His new book, The Innovative Leader, is published by Kogan Page.

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