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How Richard Branson turned his passion into a tangible business

Branson Launches Virgin AtlanticBranson Launches Virgin Atlantic
British businessman Richard Branson holding a model Boeing 747 at a press conference for the launch of his Virgin Atlantic airline, in London on February 29, 1984. Photograph by Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Organizations are dealing with higher levels of uncertainty and deeper complexity than we’ve ever seen before. Not surprisingly, this changeable landscape is causing employees to act cautiously in order to keep their jobs. (After all, who wants to “rock the boat” or be blamed for a failed project?) While this reactive behavior makes logical sense, it’s also creating a major roadblock on the journey to innovation.

Innovation begins with either a passion or a problem. Passion means you’re motivated to innovate because you care deeply about something. For example, thanks to watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon as a child, Richard Branson became very interested in space and realized that he wanted to go there like Armstrong did. For decades, he asked questions, kept notebooks of ideas, talked to different people and worked hard to figure out a way for his passion to become a reality. With a long-term commitment borne by the head and heart, it’s no wonder that the stars lined up for Branson to start Virgin Galactic, transforming his passionate idea into a tangible business.

However, becoming that passionate about something is easier said than done in a world where employment is so tenuous and many of us are more motivated by the fear of losing our jobs than by making a difference through positive change. Here are three ways to do this:

Empathize with others

Counter-intuitively, one way to overcome that fear is to look outside of your own needs. Passions that lead to world-changing insights are rarely self-centered, navel-gazing activities. Instead they often focus on trying to make a positive impact for someone else. One of the fastest ways to spark instant motivation is to set up direct, personal contact with end-users of a product or service to better understand their needs.

Search for existing problems

The other significant starting point for innovation is paying more careful attention to an existing problem. Consider Salman Khan. In 2004, Khan, then a hedge fund analyst, heard his cousin in Louisiana was struggling with mathematics. He saw an opportunity to solve this problem by tutoring his cousin over the Internet using Yahoo!’s Doodle notepad. Soon, the demand from other family members and friends for similar lessons motivated him to move his tutorials to YouTube in 2006. Today, as the founder of the Khan Academy, a not-for-profit organization with the mission of providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere, Khan has more than 2,000 tutorials on YouTube, which are viewed around the world nearly 100,000 times a day.

The good news is that everyone has problems – whether professional or personal. Either way, if we care enough about the problem, we may become passionate about solving it.

Whether you are motivated by passion or a problem, make sure you are willing to fully invest in the idea before you begin your innovation journey. Deep persistence to making an idea happen is key – even though leaders must often make critical “pivots” from initial plans to transform abstract ideas into powerful realities. Beware though that some leaders start out with great intentions, thinking they are passionate about a particular change initiative, but find themselves pulled away from the original idea into other directions – for all the wrong reasons. For example, some ideas get shut down fast by the ever spinning wheels of internal political dynamics.

Make a list

What can you do to find your passion or identify a problem that you care deeply about? Try making a list of the major challenges you currently face for which you don’t have an answer. Which of these is most deeply connected to your end users or clients? Which ones could make the biggest difference for the future of your company? Which ones spark any kind of emotion, either positive or negative? Deciding that a problem matters at a fundamental level requires a concrete choice about how you will use your time differently. So choose well to make sure it’s worth it.

When you uncover something that you care enough about to do something about it, then you’re at the perfect starting point for a powerful innovation journey. Once you get the energy and empathy juices flowing, you can get out of your comfort zone and start to make a difference.

Hal Gregersen is executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the author of The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.