Are You Indispensable at Work?


Spotlight-on-talent-cropThis summer, my wife Carolyn and I flew to Johannesburg to begin what was billed as the “Ultimate African Adventure.” By light aircraft, and then jeep, we and seven friends spent 17 days exploring the wilds of Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Each day we rose before dawn, dressed warmly (it’s winter there), and set out in Land Rovers on what are called “game drives.” We’d rumble along slowly for a time seeing nothing, then suddenly there’d be a dazzles of zebras grazing quietly. Or around the next bend, a rank of impalas or a parade of elephants. We even came upon a rare pack of wild dogs feasting on fresh kudu, and all such sightings set off press conference cacophonies of camera clicks (one friend took over 5000 photos!).

In the evenings, we enjoyed tasty meals and South African wines. We gathered around campfires for African dancing and singing by our talented camp hosts. It took awhile to adjust to going “cold turkey” and not being able to log on to the Internet. But after the first week, work began to recede from thought, and Africa lifted me up, which is exactly what vacations are supposed to do.

I came out of the bush with a new lease on life. I’m fired up. Ready to go. I love what I do, which is to coach people and organizations to realize their innovative potential. Back home in California, I received an email from a reader of InnovationTrends who works for SAP in Germany. “I love the new focus on innovation and technology trends,” she wrote. “But what I am missing is the human aspect. Personal innovation. How to support your own creativity and innovation flow.” The phone rings and it’s a major healthcare organization calling. We need you to help us “make innovation everybody’s business” at our September meeting of all 8000 employees.

Five years ago, amidst the gloom of the global financial crisis, I began to focus on the “everybody’s business” aspect of innovation. I came to see that innovation is not something you do after you get your work done, it’s how you do your work. I looked at the massive layoffs and growing disengagement, and noticed that even people with good technical and functional skills were being downsized and dislocated.

Innovation is not something you do after you get your work done, it’s how you do your work.

So I began to interview managers and individual contributors in organizations whose colleagues considered indispensable. What were their secret skills? what did they have in common that made them so valuable? What were the attributes that enabled them to get important new projects done. From this research, I came to see that whatever your position or industry or specialty, your ability to innovate – to problem solve, think critically and digitally, to experiment, add value, to be able to figure out new ways to differentiate and delight customers and to think ahead of the curve – would become more and more valuable in the world that is evolving. Developing what I started calling “I-Skills” (innovation skills) may be the best career move you’ll ever make.

Organizations don’t innovate. People innovate. Engaged and passionate and collaborative people innovate, because innovation is a team sport. The innovators I’ve met pour their heart and soul into their work, into the projects they are involved with. And they are rewarded in deeper and more satisfying relationships with colleagues.Constant learning. Greater autonomy (“They leave me alone and let me think,” said one interviewee.) In endless variety, and incredible challenge. As one of the many managers we studied expressed it: “I’ve never been so happy in my work as I am now. I get to work with a really great team of people and I’m having the time of my life.”

People who’ve embraced the innovator’s mindset all seem keenly aware of what I call their “unique contribution.” It might be their uncommon ability to spot opportunities that only seem like hassles to everyone else. It might be their ability to “connect the dots” or to link up people who don’t realize they have potential synergies. It might be bridging the communication gap between the technical folks and the marketing folks to form a more compelling offering.

When an organization finds itself disrupted, individuals with take charge reputations rise quickly to prominence. Where are the people we can rely on to lead this change initiative? To get us out of this pickle? And if you’ve quietly gone about building your I-Skills, you don’t have to market yourself. They’ll beat a path to your door.

So my advice is this: stop waiting for your organization to be perfect. You can differentiate yourself in a flawed and dysfunctional organization by becoming a pocket of excellence. A beacon of sanity and positivity and standout reputation.

If you’re curious as to the present state of your I-Skills, I challenge you to take this simple test. It’s an assessment of your strengths and areas for improvement as you become indispensable at work.