November 2009 Leadership Lessons ezine by Mark Sanborn
Robert B. Tucker is a leading thinker, author, consultant and trainer in the growing Innovation Movement. As the president of The Innovation Resource Consulting Group his clients include 200 of the Fortune 500 as well as leading companies in Europe, the Pacific Rim, Australia and the Americas. He has authored several books on the topic of innovation and his most recent, Driving Growth Through Innovation was revised and rereleased in an illustrated edition in February, 2008. Robert was kind enough to share his thoughts on why innovation is the essential survival skill for the 21st century…
Sanborn: Innovation has always been important. Is it more important today, and if so, why?
Tucker: It’s definitely more. In the global economy unless you innovate, a new competitor can show up out of nowhere and disrupt your business model overnight. Products and services become obsolete faster and faster. And we human beings, no matter our field or functional expertise, become obsolete faster than ever unless we figure out ways to create new value, which is what innovation is all about. Research out of MIT shows that if a job can be reduced to a set of replicable instructions, if it can be what they call “routinized” then it will likely go to a lower wage country. So my message is really that innovation isn’t just coming up with the next iPhone, it’s an essential survival skill for the 21st century.
Sanborn:What sorts of skills will we need to remain competitive in this new world?
Tucker: I think we all have to get serious about not only staying abreast of our specialist fields, but developing skills and competencies that aren’t taught in school. How good are you in convening a meeting for possibilities, for effective brainstorming? How good are you at tracking the trends and thinking through the implications to find hidden opportunities? Can you tap people’s creative imaginations? Can you unleash your own? Are you comfortable making decisions where you can’t possibly have all the data, all the facts and you must exercise intuitive judgment? Can you talk to customers and get them to really open up about what’s on their minds? Can you lead a team of people to deliver a result when you have no position power over them? These are the kinds of leadership qualities I coach executives in developing.
Sanborn: It seems that innovation is easy to apply to products. But what about areas like sales, service, accounting and other less obvious areas?
Tucker: Actually, that’s the big trend we’re seeing in companies in the innovation vanguard. Companies like BMW, Whirlpool, IBM, Thomson and others realize that their next truly game-changing idea might come from their supply chain people or a sharp salesperson as it is to come from the new product team. I remind executives that Starbucks’ Frappuccino was invented not at headquarters but by baristas at one of their stores in California. It was a retail clerk at Home Depot who came up with an inventory control system innovation that is today used throughout the chain. Two mechanics at American Airlines maintenance operation in Tulsa, Oklahoma came up with a way to reuse broken drill bits, saving the company $380,000. In progressive companies, we’re seeing a lot of emphasis on innovation becoming everyone’s responsibility.
Sanborn: Can individual contributors really have ideas in most companies?
Tucker: Absolutely. It’s just that in the past—and in most organizations to this day—we’ve confined responsibility for innovation to a few departments, like marketing or R&D and we’ve in effect told everyone else they were not to bother to take their ideas seriously. We’ve not listened to people in our organizations who didn’t have the right title. But now you need everyone to bring their brain to work. And you need every department and functional area to have some skin in the game, not just the folks in R&D.
Sanborn: So how do you motivate fresh thinking from traditional departments?
Tucker: You have to create a culture where individuals and teams in every area of the firm are responsible for delivering fresh approaches. It’s a matter of what you’re rewarding, what you’re incenting. One way you motivate fresh thinking from traditional departments is you break up their monopoly. You outsource some of what that department delivers, whether it’s training, HR, finance, whatever. And then you show the traditional department that they have to find ways to add value over and above their “competition”.
Sanborn: What is happening globally today relative to innovation and what warnings or lessons are there for us as leaders?
Tucker: Mark, as you know, I work with companies outside the US almost as much as I do inside. And what my travels have demonstrated more than anything is that most companies based in the US have yet to truly embrace the global economy. Many who could find tremendous growth by entering new markets, are not doing so. Our domestic markets have been robust enough to where they didn’t have to. But now that we’re in a downturn, and now that foreign competitors are coming into their markets, this is changing very rapidly.
Another concern I have is the prevailing myth that we [in the US] have some sort of lock on high value work. I just spent a week in India and I work with Indian firms. Indian and Chinese companies are not content to be simply low wage outsourcers of services or product manufacturers. They are hauling up the value chain at a much faster rate than anyone expected. Some of the most innovative firms on the planet are Indian IT outsourcing firms: Tata, Wipro, Infosys, Satyam, HCL Technologies.
Sanborn: For the reader who won’t go deep on innovation, what are 2-3 three simple, practical things he or she can do to drive more innovation in their organization?
Tucker: Why should we assume they won’t go deep? A superficial approach to innovation will only get you in trouble. Companies think they can put up posters or make “innovation” one of 13 top priorities and that will be enough. They are going to be disappointed. What I advise senior managers to do is to count on designing and implementing a systematic innovation process as being the top priority for a sustained period if you’re going to change the DNA of the company.
Sanborn: Is there a difference between creativity and innovation?
Tucker: Creativity is coming up with ideas. Innovation is bringing ideas to life.
Sanborn: Let’s look at a topic I know you’re increasingly interested in: personal innovation. What is it, exactly?
Tucker: Personal innovation is mastering a set of non-obvious and seldom discussed skills that enable us to be more effective at coming up with ideas … and bringing them to life. We could use Jeff Immelt or Oprah or Steve Jobs or Tiger Woods as examples and think about just how many ideas these leaders come up with each day. The reason you’re so successful, Mark, is that you power out more ideas day to day than others in your field. Because you’re my good friend, I’ve had the privilege of observing your success habits at close hand, especially as they relate to innovation. You read more books and expose yourself to more ideas; you network with others seeking out good ideas; you empower your team to have ideas, and bring them to life. And that’s what it’s really about in this age of Innovation: finding what works for you as an individual to inspire yourself to take your ideas seriously. To identify what gets your creative juices flowing, to take time to think and dream, to set stretch goals – and yes, to implement too.
Sanborn: So what prevents it?
Tucker: Fear of failure would have to be at the top of the list. Have you ever failed with one of your ideas? Of course! Show me an innovator and I’ll show you someone who is very familiar with failure. I love what Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor said about this. He said, ‘to me, success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. In fact success represents the one percent of your work that results from the 99 percent that is called failure.’ I always say, if you haven’t failed at something lately, you must be doing something wrong.’
Sanborn: What are the “daily disciplines” for personal innovation?
Tucker: I always recommend carving out creative space to do your best thinking daily. Many people tell me they get most of their ideas in the shower, some while driving to work. I find a surprising number of people report getting their best ideas in the middle of the night. For me it’s getting up at five, going for a run and spending an hour reading and reflecting and planning my day.
Another daily discipline is capturing your ideas when they occur – little ideas like ‘pick up the dry cleaning’ all the way to big ideas you get that you say ‘wow’ to immediately. I also suggest taking a problem or situation you’re facing and forcing yourself to come up with 10 different possible solutions. And there’s more to be sure. What we’re really talking about is paying more attention to what gets your creative juices flowing.
Sanborn: How do we transfer these skills from work to our homes, communities and elsewhere?
Tucker: This is a hot topic right now. I spoke with the education minister of Singapore recently and his whole thing is how do we teach these skills and how does Singapore develop its young people to find the better way, the uncommon path. I thought about what’s happening in education in American schools: we’re cutting out music and the arts and recess periods and we’re testing and teaching to the test so we can show improvement in scores. While these intentions were I’m sure noble, the effect is to leech out the innate creativity and willingness to experiment and even to learn for the enjoyment of learning. So we very much need to help transfer these skills to our families and communities.