Leaders Weigh in on the Challenges of Purpose-Driven Innovation

By Christa Avampato, Meghan Hall |  March 21, 2023

Defining and communicating an organization’s purpose is becoming a priority within some organizations. But it often entails overcoming some challenges.

As part of our collaboration with BCG BrightHouse, the global creative consultancy, we interviewed 12 senior leaders in large organizations to learn about how the notion of “purpose” is discussed and operationalized. Many of the hurdles they cited are similar to those that accompany setting up an innovation function in the first place. 

Karen Murphy, Chief Innovation Officer of the Pennsylvania-based healthcare provider Geisinger, said she thinks it can be hard for people to move past their comfort zones when it comes to linking purpose and innovation work — particularly when working on transformational innovation initiatives. 

Karen Murphy, Chief Innovation Officer, Geisinger

But another challenge is a common one: funding.

Karen Murphy, Chief Innovation Officer, Geisinger: “I think [one of the challenges] is the willingness for people to change and think out of the box. Radical innovation is not something the industry has embraced, really. I think, to get everybody to that mindset of let’s start at ground zero, and let’s use human-centered design, to say, ‘How do we design something completely different than what we’re doing right now?’ It’s very hard to get operators in that mindset.

I think the other challenge is funding innovation. With all the competing priorities… when you’re in a situation like [the healthcare industry] is now, performance is so important. You’re looking at competing priorities. And it’s very hard to say, ‘I’m not going to pay for contracted staff,’ or ‘I’m not going to pay for an MRI machine so I can fund innovation.’… It takes resources to really innovate. You can’t innovate and operate at the same time.”

For Muna Hamza, the Director of Purpose and the Innovation Accelerator at General Motors, the biggest challenges are making purpose a priority, and measuring its impact. 

Muna Hamza, Director of Purpose and Innovation Accelerator, General Motors

A desire to define purpose came about relatively recently at GM, Hamza said, so the Detroit-based auto company is still working to stand it up fully. Communicating about — and prioritizing — purpose are facets of the plan the organization is still working through. 

Muna Hamza, Director of Purpose and Innovation Accelerator, General Motors: “I think the biggest challenge is probably the one that’s common to most organizations, which is how do you prove the value of [purpose], in a world where people are bombarded with different priorities and things that they need to focus on and results that they need to deliver? 

Purpose is notoriously hard to measure in a meaningful way… Some people intrinsically get it, and others are not there yet… How you prove the value of [purpose] at GM may be very different to how you prove the value of it in another organization; you have to know your population and know where to meet them. 

But that’s probably one of those evergreen problems around purpose. How do you make sure it’s not a fluffy, nice-to-do afterthought? If you take care of all the business first and then you get to purpose, it’s like, how do you reframe the whole question? 

[Instead], it’s thinking about all of your business and your decisions through the lens of your purpose. If you see the power of doing that across the enterprise in a consistent way, and how that can align people, there’s a huge unlock, but it’s really easy to say and really hard to do.”

Thanks to BCG BrightHouse for their sponsorship of this series. Read more pieces on innovating purposefully here.

Kimberly Coletti is Global Director for LIFT Lab at Save the Children, a Connecticut-based NGO that aims to help improve the lives of children worldwide. (LIFT stands for Leveraging Innovation for Transformation.) She said that the two greatest challenges her team faces are budgets, and expectations from those outside of the innovation team. 

Kimberly Coletti, Global Director for LIFT Lab at Save the Children

Kimberly Coletti, Global Director for LIFT Lab at Save the Children: “We need funding to do this work. Many times, donors want to fund a specific initiative or innovator, but not the infrastructure of LIFT Lab. For-profit entities have robust research and development departments, but in a non-profit organization, resources to fund innovation programs come from very precious undesignated resources…

Internally, there are sometimes expectations that innovation work must be successful, quick, and under budget. But innovation work, by its nature, requires time and experimentation. Things don’t always go exactly according to plan, and sometimes the ideas don’t work as expected. That can be difficult for some people to understand and expect, so we have to be very transparent about how we might pivot, how it is ok to fail as long as we learn and it is ok to try something new. This is often challenging for people who haven’t worked in innovation before.” 

Lara Ramdin, Chief Innovation Officer at Dole Sunshine, the fresh and packaged fruit supplier headquartered in Singapore, says her organization’s purpose centers around creating more sustainable, accessible food systems for all. 

Lara Ramdin, Chief Innovation Officer, Dole Sunshine

For Ramdin, one of the greatest challenges comes in sectioning off smaller pieces of the challenge to address one at a time. She said the other issue is that not enough other organizations have begun to consider the challenges Dole Sunshine has thought about.

Lara Ramdin, Chief Innovation Officer, Dole Sunshine: “[Combining sustainability and accessibility is] a really, really big piece of the puzzle to chew. It’s really difficult to bite off. It is completely understandable to say, ‘Actually, we’re going to tackle this bit, because this bit is the bit where we can have an impact.’ What I would say is, in my role as the Chief Innovation Officer of Dole [Sunshine], is ‘Here are the resources that we have available; here are the things that we can do; and this is the contribution that we can make.’ 

We recognize that we’re just a small part of a much bigger system. And it doesn’t work if it’s only us. What we really want is a dialogue. We want a dialogue with everybody.”