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What’s your innovation ikigai? A conversation with Mike Harris

Mike Harris

For innovators, finding a purpose for work, career and life is essential. Find out how Mike Harris, Innovation & Growth Specialist at Innovate UK EDGE, found his.

There are some fantastic Japanese terms that have no direct translation in English, but are able to convey an incredible concept in a single word. 'Wabi-sabi', for example, can be translated as “Finding beauty within the imperfections of life and peacefully accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay”. 

One such term that we love is 'ikigai', defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a motivating force; something or someone that gives a person a sense of purpose or a reason for living”. Others associate it with “a Venn diagram with four overlapping qualities”: what you are good at, what you love, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

For innovators, finding this ikigai is the Holy Grail. Mike Harris, Innovation and Growth Specialist at Innovate UK EDGE SW, didn’t always have this purpose in life – but he does now. How did he get there? Read on to find out... 

We’re custodians of this planet

Growing up on a North Cornish headland with hotelier parents, Mike had a strong passion for nature and the environment from a young age. As a child, he would see the changes that the seasons brought, the way that things would wash up on the coast, the effects of acid rain. It was also around this time that environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage started out: a time when more and more environmental issues were starting to come to light. 

He recalls his peers choosing their GCSE, A Level and university options. “Everyone seemed to be going for things that looked like jobs”, he says. “Me? I couldn’t see any jobs. What I could see was the things that I wanted to do – the things I was passionate about”. 

It resulted in a degree in environmental sciences and a Masters in environmental management, interspersed with some world travel. “It all cemented in me the real feeling that this really is a small planet – that a lot of local issues are actually real global issues”, he says. “We’re custodians of this planet – we’re not owners of any piece of it. We’re literally here to hand it on, and we’ve all got a part to play in that journey”. 

Driven by the stick rather than the carrot

After his Masters, Mike spent five years as a Project Development Manager at the University of East Anglia. Here, he worked with environmental businesses on the ever-increasing reams of environmental legislation and regulation, enabling him to see that there were opportunities out there for him to work with his passion. “It felt like it was being driven by the stick rather than the carrot, though”, he recalls. “The polluter pays principle was everywhere, and I was getting to the point where everything in the media seemed to be painting a bleak picture of both our present and our future”.

In 2008, things changed when Mike took a position as Foundation Projects Manager at The Eden Project. “Until then, it felt like a grind to try and find good projects that would really excite and interest me. That changed around the time I got a job at The Eden Project”. 

He describes the role as one where the encouragement was to focus not on the problem, but on how people work together in communities of like-minded people who want to do something to make our future a better one.

Then, just a few short years into his time at The Eden Project, Mike was diagnosed with bowel cancer. That – plus a secondary cancer – led to two years of treatment. “I was in survival mode”, he says. “In between working and trying to keep things as normal as possible at the age of 31, I had a lot of time to self-reflect. I was just setting out on the road towards starting a family, and all of that was taken away from me for the time being”. 

It was during his treatment that Mike really started to reflect on the big questions: why we’re here, the meaning of life. “I felt like I needed to build a legacy of some description – something I could be proud of at the end, wherever it led”. 

A growing appetite for risk 

For some time after this, Mike kept feeling like he was walking into great projects that had already been written: his task was simply to manage them through to completion. He still had a niggling fear that in the future he would look back and ask himself why he hadn’t done the things that he had written down in the past. 

Five years ago, he took his biggest plunge to date – “I hung up my career for a period of time”, he says. Leaving the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol, where he had been working in corporate engagement, he took the leap into hospitality, following in his hotelier parents’ footsteps. He took over award-winning Belgian beer bar The Strawberry Thief, where he loved the focus on quality products. 

His aim was to put into play all of the sustainability principles he had learned up until that point, as well as to create a community, and a place that he felt proud of every time he walked through the door. “It became about experiences”, he says. “That’s how we define the brand now – not as a bar, or being about drinks or food, but as an experiential brand that brings people together”. 

The Strawberry Thief’s sustainability principles are impressive, from the way in which they order to the provenance of their products, to how they manage their wastewater and energy. “But actually, it’s the people that are most important to me”, says Mike. “We’ve made real inroads into changing the way people in hospitality are treated, so that the staff feel they are part of the community and feel a really deep connection with what we’re doing”. In taking on the bar, Mike had started to realise this sense of purpose – working with people who are driven by a sense of wanting to do something that will leave the world in a better place. 

Green, red and amber lights 

When it comes to finding moments of clarity and purpose, Mike has taken inspiration from two very different sources. The first is actor Matthew McConaughey’s book, Greenlights

“He’s a very articulate writer”, proclaims Mike. “He talks about points in life where you get to ‘green lights’ – times where everything flows, everything aligns and things are going well. You feel like you’ve got that 'worldie' energy – but you also need to have a heightened sense of awareness to avoid it becoming a kind of drug that fuels you into decision-making”. 

This, explains Greenlights, is where you need your amber lights to ensure sensible and successful decision-making, and red lights, which signal a crisis point. “We always tend to look at the crisis points, as those are the ones we learn from the most – the ones where we have a fight or flight response that shows us a lot about our resilience”, says Mike. But those green light moments, explains the book, is where we probably have the most to learn – times when we should absolutely enjoy the ride, but not allow ourselves to simply get swept along. 

Mike describes how easy it is during the good times to take your foot off the pedal, to stop steering and just enjoy the ride. He mentions the importance of discipline – that need to be aware of all of the things that could distract from the ultimate goal – but also the importance of passion. 

“I need the people I employ to see that this is a real passion”, he says. “I need them to see the sense of direction, understand why we’re here and what we’re trying to achieve, keep them coming in every day feeling that sense of connection”. This is especially true, he says, with a younger workforce – a realisation that came to light even more when Mike realised that many of his team hadn’t even been born when he graduated from university. 

“That generation is really driven by an ethical connection to brands and their impact on society”, he says. “Now more than ever, younger generations are driving this activism by choosing more carefully where they spend their money”. However, it’s not just about purchasing from ethical businesses, but also how Generation Z work, and who they want to work for. “It’s much less about financial reward”, says Mike. “It’s far more about that sense of personal growth that comes when you’re with someone you believe in”.

Finding a clear purpose 

Often, stories about how people found their sense of purpose are lofty, grandiose tales that feel almost like a planetary leap. For Mike, however, the process felt far less lofty – a simple realisation based on everything he had experienced and achieved in his career to date. 

“Ultimately, I just want to be here to leave the world in a better state,” he says. “That’s just in terms of the connections I make, the people I surround myself with, the projects I’m involved with. With everything I do, I just want to be able to feel like things are moving in a better way.”

However, while defining your purpose is one thing, backing it up is entirely another. “When it comes to changing the world, a purpose alone won’t get you there – you need to back it up with the right culture and values”, says Mike. Ultimately, everything you do as a business must be aligned with your overall purpose, and this purpose may well change over time and evolve as your business grows. 

“See your purpose as a journey”, says Mike. “Don’t let it be set by a single person, as it can make it hard for others to connect with it. While you can set out a vision by yourself, your actual purpose should always be something that continues to bind you all together, to connect you all to something”. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that having a really clear connection to purpose is vital when it comes to innovation. Pre-COVID, many companies had a clear purpose: a true sense of what they were there to serve and achieve. “They would never have imagined that they would have to go into survival mode, doing things they would never have thought they’d be doing”, says Mike. “Some companies will have pivoted into something completely different in a bid to survive, losing their sense of direction as a result”. What’s key now is to find a way to return to that purpose, revisiting it to ensure that it still serves the direction in which the company is going.

Finding your innovation purpose 

In Mike’s role at Innovate UK, he works with clients of all industries, sizes and ages, giving him great insight into how all manner of organisations find their purpose.

For him, it has been particularly interesting working alongside around ten companies who are 18 months old or younger, who have had to immediately start working in a pandemic-blighted world that is very different from before. 

“The startups I’m working with are all highly innovative companies that have a solution to something”, he says. “They’re IP-led, and they’ve won funding to commercialise that IP, going through a final product development phase and then into full commercialisation”. For these companies, he doesn’t believe the pandemic has had a negative impact on the way they work: they have been clear about their purpose from the outset.

Looking for a better way to manage the ideation process within your organisation? Find out how Acclaim Ideas can help.

Instead, he describes the pandemic as creating opportunities for some of these businesses – giving them the opportunity to enter what may have felt like a daunting, crowded market but instead feeling really focused. He describes how many of these businesses are formed based on extensive research which is then commercialised – a four to five year lead into a commercialisation phase that may be comparatively short. 

“It’s an interesting part of the process for me”, he says. “We have a huge bank of specialists from commercialisation backgrounds that give us the ability to support them, understanding the pitfalls that might come right at the end of the process”. 

In the startups Mike works with, this sense of purpose is built in from the start. With the more established companies, however, things are very different. “With those companies, innovation is part of the culture, but new product development isn’t necessarily front and centre”, he says. “They’ve had to shift that really quickly to be able to survive: they’ve had to really focus in on what innovation looks like for them to be able to pivot and enter new markets”. 

So, how does Mike advise businesses he works with on getting clear on the purpose of driving their innovation? 

“There’s a real difference between the smaller SMEs, and the larger ones who are growing more rapidly”, he says. At the smaller end, SMEs tend to be owner-run or founder-run, giving him the chance to really get to know that person, why they started the company and the circumstances behind it. At times, he describes how that purpose isn’t clearly defined, but can come through articulately in these conversations with the founder, giving him and the company alike a stronger definition of purpose with which to move forward. 

With larger companies, things are different. “Here, I focus more on understanding the history of the company, as well as the culture that’s there, what they’re trying to achieve, and whether there is a collective purpose”, he says. “In some cases, the company may be driven by something that no longer exists, that isn’t as well-connected to the company”. He describes how, as a company grows and shifts, that sense of purpose can be lost, stressing that it needs to be revisited both individually as a leader, and as a collective to establish whether the company’s direction has changed. 

Mike ends by describing how defining your ikigai can improve not only your working life but your personal life too. “For me, aligning my working purpose with my personal purpose made it feel far less like I was just doing a day’s work. It filled me with a real sense of pride and connection, which means I never feel fatigued by it”. 

Of course, like anyone else he still has times of stress, but he no longer has those moments where he sits and wonders why he decided to do what he’s doing. That, for us, is the Holy Grail of working life. 

Many thanks to Mike for taking the time to talk to us. We know that innovation is key to keeping that sense of purpose alive – find out how Acclaim Ideas can help

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