As a researcher in industry, let me first emphasize to you that "industry" is a much broader set of organizations and varies a lot more than most people realize. Thus, the answer to your question may depend quite a bit on the specifics of the company that you are at.
That said, however, in most cases a key animating idea for researchers in industry is a notion that often goes by a name like "customer focus": i.e., who will care about the results of this investigation?
Sometimes this is pretty straightforward (e.g., "if widget-making is 5% more efficient, then profit margins on widgets go up), but in other cases the relation is much more abstract or indirect (e.g., some prior work I did on potential programming languages for quantum computers that don't currently exist, but where the funder wanted to see how thinking about this might affect their goals for other research projects).
In all cases, however, you always have to be aware that somebody is paying the funds to support your salary and the salaries of your team, and they are giving you that money because they want some benefit to come from your research. This is true in academia as well, but professors are typically more insulated from it because their salaries are generally mostly supported by teaching---and even graduate students can be supported by TAships. If you're being paid to teach and expected to do research on the side, then it doesn't really matter what you're researching in the short term---but you will have more impact if you work on more important problems.
So, to the heart your question: how do you actually go about doing that?
I recommend starting by trying to be aware that at all times there is a "frontier" of research problems that you could be working on. Whenever you do a piece of work, you are choosing to prioritize one piece of that frontier over others. Notice this fact and ask yourself questions like:
- Why did I choose this problem over those other ones?
- How will solving this problem affect the other problems on my frontier?
- Who else cares about the solution to this problem?
There can be lots of reasonable answers to these questions, but starting to ask them can be extremely helping in moving to a more conscious evaluation of your research choices and whether they're actually moving you in the direction that you want to go in your career.
For more thoughts and suggestions along these lines, I would recommend the following resources:
- "You and Your Research" by Richard Hamming, a long-time industrial researcher at Bell Labs.
- My own talk on "Surviving Life as a Researcher"