Saying that a leader needs a purpose is a little like saying that a sail boat needs a sail or a car needs wheels.  It’s so obvious that it seems barely worth mentioning. What’s a little less obvious is the critical role that purpose plays in creativity and innovation. Yet those activities are just as dependent on having a clear purpose as leadership is.

I sometimes get a little push back on this, especially from my friends whose thinking (like mine) draws on concepts from complexity science. I’m cautioned that setting objectives is part of a command and control leadership model. To some, it seems to stray away from their desire to allow solutions to emerge rather than being directed. They see it as undermining the broad input and participation they seek to foster. To those who embrace traditional leadership models, this poses no dilemma. But for those who advocate a more participatory style, it can be a significant issue.

I was once part of a discussion by conservation professionals planning a public meeting to gather input for a policy initiative called Greenways. At the time, I was Communications Director for the agency so it was my job to help get the word out. But I was cautioned not to use the term “Greenways” because that would be giving it a predetermined outcome.

“Then what are we calling this?” I asked.

“They’ll decide that when they get there,” was the response.

Everyone (but me) seemed to be in firm agreement on this point. The problem was of course getting anyone interested in attending an event without telling them what they were going to be discussing. I managed to convince the committee that simply putting a name on it was not overly restrictive and was a necessary part of communicating with people. Still, the group was adamant that I not define what “Greenways” meant. I finally said, “Okay, just for the sake of discussion, what if instead of ‘Greenways,’ this initiative was called ‘Viggleshnort’? Are you saying that I should invite folks to come talk about ‘Viggleshnort’ and when they ask me what that is, I should say, ‘You’ll decide that when you get here.’?” The room got very quiet.

We have a tendency to talk about problems and challenges as though they’re starting points or prior conditions, like sitting down to work a math problem. But in the real world, our problems aren’t found in textbooks. Real world problems are obstacles not yet overcome, challenges yet to be met, solutions we haven’t yet found. In other words, problems are inherently forward-looking. They imply a purpose. Without purpose, we have no problems.

Problems are how we define what a successful solution or outcome must be. (It has to solve the problem.) In the formal discipline of creative problem solving, the first step is selecting some dream, wish, desire or objective (i.e. purpose). Only then can the problem be defined—in terms of that chosen outcome. And only after the problem is well-defined is it productive to brainstorm possible solutions. Purpose is a thread that runs throughout the entire problem solving process. Yet I find that even people who facilitate creative problem solving sometimes resist making that connection.

This is not some arcane academic distinction. It has real practical implications for fostering innovation. Techniques such as the Voice of the Customer and other customer-centric approaches to innovation are driven by a desire to solve real customer problems and assure that the solution delivers true value. That’s a purpose. Best practices for idea management systems involve an event driven approach in which ideas are solicited around a well-defined problem or challenge. In other words, people provide their best and most relevant ideas when they have a purpose. Without a purpose, there’s little incentive to generate ideas and no criteria for selecting among them.

Purpose is a frequently underrated component of the creative process. Yet it’s essential to both leadership and successful innovation. Is your purpose clear and compelling? Is it articulated in ways that encourage participation? Is it reinforced by your personal behaviors? A weak or poorly understood purpose will promote equally weak outcomes. Creativity answers the “How?” What it needs in order to get started is the “Why?”