[Quote] Power without purpose

Above almost all else, innovation leaders must find a meaningful, stable "must-do purpose" for their work.

[Quote] Power without purpose

"Power without purpose
[is] the real trap,
the true paralysis.

The freedom
of endless choices
wasn’t meant
for human minds."

– Olivie Blake in The Atlas Six

Allow me a quick personal story (Yes, it relates)

This quote reminds me of an important moment in my professional life:

Flip back the calendar by 15-odd years, if you will.

It's May, a sunny, beautiful time to be in New York City.

My graduate school time is running through a long, leisurely month of good-bye activities. Their meaning sloshes between celebrating effort that has reached a result, sadness at friends scattering around the world, and recognition that this is likely the last time ever that most of us will be professional students. Endings. Beginnings. Futures undefined. Amusingly emotional for supposedly-serious business people.

And, along the way, someone asks me a question. I don't know who anymore. Nor where: A walk in the park? A neighborhood restaurant? But the question has stayed with me"

"What, after everything, have you truly learned here?

Not the tactical things, but the big lessons?"

And from one moment to the next, answers appear in my mind that I hadn't considered even a split second before.

It's a short list of items. One of them matters here. One of the big lessons I learned at a gut level and had turned into habits during those two years, it's this:

"For anything to get done,
at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is
force of will–insisting that the universe bend to your demands.

But force of will is neither good nor bad.
It just is. It shapes the world.

To make it positive,
we need 2 more things:
vision, to give will focus and direction,
and for-real ethics, to keep from taking will to dark places.

Got those three? You'll take on (and over) the world:


The point for innovation

This stuff is critical for any innovation governance efforts that hope to achieve anything:

Both Olivie Blake's insight (power needs purpose and a max on options) and my own lesson (impact needs force of will, vision, for-real ethics) matter critically to innovation leaders and executives overseeing innovation efforts at a governance level.

Too often, innovation mandates amount to little more than:

"Hey, we need more money.
Find us ways to grow sales and profits
that our core operational teams haven't found yet!"

Those mandates tend to lead to nothing. Or, at best, they achieve something after much chaos and trying a multitude of things. Blind fumbling, in essence.

In my practice, I've seen this more often than I care to count, in all different flavors. E.g.:

  • The "change with no change:" There was the executive who insisted on growth in exactly the same spot where their team already focused and hadn't found any.
  • The "I really need it until I don't:" There were the various executives who swore up and down how critical an initiative was to them ... until the team delivered a finished version to them and it suddenly wasn't so important anymore.
  • The "come up with new ideas as long as they are mine:" There was the executive who wanted various innovation activities to prove that the ideas on which they had already settled were objectively "right" too.

You get the point.

In summary, do leaders have the power to initiate work? Yes. But is power enough to make it have a chance to succeed? No!

Must-do purpose (notice: must-do purpose, not just any purpose) and focus also matter, as an interlocking and mutually reinforcing pair of priorities, alongside power. Purpose offers focus and reduction of distractions. Focus helps to clarify purpose. You mustn't have one without the other

The problem is: Must-do purpose is really hard to pull out of thin air if you don't have it already. So you may instead have to start with a portfolio of efforts and simply stay disciplined and use that portfolio to distill a must-do purpose for you. To start out though, you might need to start with that portfolio.

It might seem that a portfolio approach falls prey to the tyranny of choice and so doesn't meat the standards of Olivie Blake's insights. But not so: A good portfolio explores different possibilities with ever greater efficiency, meaning ever-less effort and commitment to each initiative in the portfolio.

(Side bar, that portfolio had better be big and diverse enough to work. It might exceed 100 or even 200 attempts/ initiatives!)

As you go, you get detached. You can test things quickly without major mental load. You fly through topics and focus instead on finding your must-do purpose as you go. Just don't forget that you still must reach that purpose eventually, even if it only emerges over time!

Said visually:

A decision tree suggesting that teams that have an existing, must-do cause can pursue purpose-driven innovation, while others need a portfolio

(BTW, I've written more about this visual on LinkedIn.)

But after all the dust clears, you need purpose, or as I learned in grad school, force of will, vision, and for-real ethics.

Bonus: A "cutting room floor" nugget about the tyranny of choice:

As I researched ways to to write about this quote, I considered whether to call out that the quote is not meant as some anti-capitalist or anti-democratic manifesto.

Obviously "fewer choices" does not mean "taking away people's choices" in the way some paternalistic or authoritarian state does. Instead, it's more about avoiding the tyranny of choice or "paradox of choice."

Along the way, I found another new-to-me similar term that is also worth knowing, in addition to the "tyranny of choice," namely the "tyranny of small decisions:"

It's a term to describe the phenomenon by which a series of small, seemingly innocuous choices end up causing big problems in total. It's a fancy term for summarizing the anecdote: "For lack of a nail, the horseshoe was lost. For lack of the horse, the soldier was lost. For lack of .... [eventually we get to] the war was lost."

The Wikipedia article about the concept includes both an interesting history of its use as well as impactful (if sad) real-world examples.


The Atlas Six

by Olivie Blake

Tor Books (2022)

Find on author's website

Further reading

Blake, O. (2022). The Atlas Six. Tor Books. http://books.google.com/books?id=n4tVEAAAQBAJ&hl=&source=gbs_api