The importance of goals for innovation can be traced to social psychological theory, which suggests that one of the most important antecedents for innovative activity is “vision”, an idea of a valued outcome which represents a higher order goal and motivating force at “work” (West 1990).
Robinson and Stern (1998) studied successful innovation processes in US and Japanese firms noted that alignment with the company’s key strategic goals was a feature in every case. They suggested that this direction-pointing helped employees recognize and respond to a potentially useful idea. Lapierrre and Giroux’s (2003) more rigorous study focused on high-tech organizations also concluded that alignment of creative thinking with organizational goals was a “valid and reliable predictor” of implemented innovation. Further evidence comes from Smith and colleagues’ (2008) systematic review of over 100 papers that identified alignment of innovation goals with corporate strategy as one of the key factors impacting on an organization’s ability to manage innovation.
The British National School of Government’s study of organizations that excel found that an important ingredient in their success was a clearly articulated “imperative to innovation” (Dennis, Tanner and Walker, 2005). Such an imperative leads highly innovative organizations to stretch their aspirations beyond what might be immediately achievable. Collins and Porras (1994) studied 18 companies that had survived as leaders over decades of change in their industries and 18 comparison companies that did not. One of their findings was the presence in the successful organizations of what they called “big, hairy, audacious goals” (BHAGs) that drove the organization to unimaginable levels of performance over long time horizons (see example below). Echoing this insight, innovation expert Gary Hammel advises that organizations looking to innovate “must have the courage to set seemingly aggressive objectives” if they are truly to spawn creativity (Barsh 2007).
While it may be the leader’s role to set goals, providing autonomy to managers and staff on the means for getting there is a clear conclusion in the innovation literature. For example, Amabile (1998) states,
“Clearly specified strategic goals often enhance people’s creativity…Creativity thrives when managers let people decide how to climb a mountain; they needn’t, however, let employees choose which one”.
NOTE: All of the information on the Elements of a Culture of Innovation, Assessment, and Tips for Leaders were adapted from Maher, Lynne, Paul Plsek, Jenny Price, and Mark Mugglestone, (2010), “Creating the Culture for Innovation: A Practical Guide for Leaders” published by the National Health Service (NHS) Institute for Innovation and Improvement in the United Kingdom