Innovation Excellence Interview: Where is the Innovation Movement Headed?

Robert B. Tucker is a popular innovation speaker and consultant. Since 1986, with the publication of Winning the Innovation Game, he has coached and advised managers, executives, and entire teams at organizations ranging from IBM to the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory to SAP. Post-it Note inventor Art Fry said that after a 40 year career developing new products for 3M, “I found myself agreeing with everything Tucker says about taking an idea from concept to successful innovation” in his ground-breaking book Driving Growth Through Innovation.

President of The Innovation Resource Consulting Group, with clients in 40 countries, Tucker’s primary work is assisting firms in developing sustainable innovation programs. His latest book, Innovation is Everybody’s Business, delves into how individual contributors and mid-level managers can ride the innovation trend. He recently sat down with me to discuss the new book and the state of the Innovation Movement.

1. Robert, you’ve been involved in the field of innovation since 1986. Where is the Innovation Movement headed?

In contrast to what we saw two years ago, The Innovation Movement is booming, even in the face of pretty dismal economic results. What we’re finding today is that many organizations are continuing to transition away from the conservative reaction of hunkering down, reducing headcount and cost-cutting and are actively searching for new ways to grow revenue, engage and develop their high potential employees, enter new markets and disrupt the competition. I’d say the future has never been brighter for innovation practitioners inside organizations who can deliver growth, and for innovation consultants who can help them achieve these objectives. We’ve never seen anything like it.

2. Why are organizations focusing on getting better at innovation?

Because the old ways of doing business just don’t cut it in a time of hyper-competition. Customer needs are changing faster and faster. New competitors crop up out of nowhere. Disruption used to be confined to a few industries but it’s now a fact of life in most industries – and it will crush you if you don’t push back. Products become commodities in the blink of an eye – just ask mobile phone handset manufacturers like Nokia who’ve been hit with the I-Phone and droid [operating system]. The problem is organizations don’t innovate – people innovate. So leaders have begun to realize they need their people to be bold, think big, assault assumptions, go beyond tactical execution and dream up opportunities. IBM asked 1500 CEOs at big global companies: what’s the one attribute you seek above all others in your people today? The answer: creativity. There’s just not enough of it today in organizations.

3. Your new book, Innovation is Everybody’s Business, was something of a departure for you in the sense that it is directed to the individual contributor and manager, rather than being another tract on “here’s how to innovate in your company.” Why did you change your focus?

Our overall focus hasn’t changed; we still assist organizations in establishing systematic processes to drive profitable growth. But this book is a manifesto for everybody else out there who is not the CEO. It basically says ‘heads up, friend. While you’re busy answering 100 emails a day and attending back to back meetings, the world is changing in some pretty dramatic ways. The reality is, you’re either on a path to becoming indispensable or you’re becoming expendable, because – simply put –the system wants to eliminate your job. But it goes on to say, if you’ll just spend a little time each day developing your innovation skills, I-Skills for short, you’re going to be in the catbird seat because you have the unique, and valuable skills that make you indispensable.’

4. Don’t employees just frustrate themselves if where they work doesn’t value their ideas? Don’t you need a creative culture in order to propose new ideas?

That’s a common perception, and it’s a stumbling block that I hear all the time. In researching the book, my team of graduate and undergraduate students from UCSB and I identified 43 innovation-adept managers and contributors inside organizations. The people we interviewed had developed reputations as being innovators, people who get new things done for the organization. And what we found were folks who didn’t wait for their organizations to be perfect. They stepped up to the plate and showed initiative. They did what needed to be done. But it wasn’t like they were arrogant or outliers. Instead we found humble, team-oriented people who were reluctant to take personal credit for the success they’d achieved.

5. What’s your advice when somebody says they’ve got ideas, they’d like to innovate but their organization is dysfunctional?

If you wait for your organization to be like Google or Apple, you may have to wait a very long time. But look at the big picture: your CEO absolutely, positively needs you to innovate at the grass roots level. Chiefs view their talent needs differently today. They finally understand that innovation is much more than what goes on in their research labs. They are starting to see it as a critical element in the way their people think, solve problems, discover new revenue streams, and add value day to day. Suddenly innovation is being linked to talent management, employee engagement, and developing tomorrow’s leaders. So a lot of my recent work has been with multi-national firms who have asked me to teach their high potential employees these I-Skills.

6. Why is that a lot of people don’t feel like they’re very creative or innovative?

The reason I felt compelled to write the book is that far too many people think that creativity and innovation are something you are either born with or you’re out of luck. Or they assume innovation is somebody else’s responsibility. My message is, whether you write software, design employee handbooks, process payroll, or even if you’re the receptionist — you can still be creative in how you add value, how you do your everyday work. It’s about doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways. It’s taking initiative and reaching out for help. Innovation is not something you do after you get your work done… it’s how you approach your work.

7. I want to hear about these Seven I-Skills. But first, who did you interview?

Tucker: We interviewed people like Brent Gow, payroll chief at Starbucks, whose department discovered ways to reduce the cost of paying employees by 50 percent. We interviewed Tom Dolan, and unconventional manager at Xerox Global Services who stared down a major disruption threatening the very life of his company, and he didn’t flinch. He saw how Xerox had gotten out of step with customer needs, and he accepted the will of the market. We interviewed Jennifer Rock at Best Buy, who with her team took on the problem of employee turnover and helped reduce it from over 80 percent to under 40 percent by using social media and the company intranet to foster dialogue between employees in the various stores. The result was that they transformed employee engagement levels. When we asked these leaders how they become so innovative, they all said without fail: I didn’t start out knowing how to innovate, I developed these skills.

8. Tell us about these I-Skills. How do I know if I’ve got the right stuff or not?

Sure. And let me start by posing a question to our readers out there: How good are you at brainstorming and working on your ideas? That’s an I-Skill we call Fortifying Your Idea Factory. How good are you at tracking the trends, connecting the dots and discovering opportunities? That’s an I-Skill we call “thinking ahead of the curve”. Can you create a level of trust necessary for truly breakthrough collaboration? That’s an I-Skill. Do you have passion for your customer – whether that’s an internal customer or an actual end user? – that’s another I-Skill. And can you build support for your ideas and convince others to go along? That’s an I-Skill we call Building the Buy-in. We actually have an assessment where you can see how you stack up. Give it a shot!

9. The big trend today is an increasing emphasis on employee engagement. Yet research shows that employees feel worse about their jobs than ever before. What gives?

It’s ironic, isn’t it? You’d think that people would be happy to have a job when there are so many millions of people out there who can’t find one. But we’ve pushed lean and mean and headcount reduction so far in the past decade that the pendulum had to swing the other way. Granted, it’s hard to measure individual productivity in white collar work, and that the solution du jour has been, “firings will continue until people collapse from exhaustion” and that’s where many firms are today. Disengagement is rife at the precise time we need people to bring their full selves to work and innovate minute by minute. Gallup estimates the cost of America’s disengagement crisis at $300 billion in lost productivity annually. But I think for those of us in the Innovation Movement, this is our opportunity to come forward with solutions.

10. Why is that?

Because when you unleash the spirit of innovation, and involve employees in idea management, people get engaged. And when you engage your people, innovation happens, and when you fail to engage them, the opposite happens. The research proves this phenomenon. For example, last year Jim Harter and his colleagues at Harvard found that lower job satisfaction foreshadowed poorer bottom-line performance. When people are indifferent about their work and especially if they are mentally checked out, they simply don’t perform.

11. Who are the early adopters of what you call ‘personal innovation’?

It’s been fascinating to discover who’s responding at the grass roots level. LG Electronics MobileComm USA teaches these I-Skills to everyone in the company, from the receptionist to Jeff Hwang, their president. The American College of Healthcare Executives, has been using Innovation is Everybody’s Business as a playbook. Alabama State University’s entire administrative staff has been educated in putting the Seven I-Skills to work as they strive for excellence. We’ve heard from various professors that they use the book as a guide to prepare students graduating into a difficult job market. The sales force at Bristol Myers Squibb uses their I-Skills training to drive market share.

12. Any final comments, Robert?

In my conversations with CEOs the world over, I can’t tell you how many times they’ve said to me, Robert, we’ve got really good people working here. They’ve got good functional skills. They’re great at execution. But they wait to be told what to do. And the world is changing so fast, I need people who can help us stay ahead of the curve. So, my final piece of advice would be, whatever your position or industry, your ability to innovate – to solve problems, experiment, create ideas, drive growth, collaborate with others, and add value – is going to give you a personal competitive advantage that can never be outsourced. The people we interviewed pour their best selves into their work. And they are rewarded with richer and deeper relationships, constant learning, endless variety, and incredible challenge. As one of the managers we interviewed told me, ‘I’ve never been so happy in my work as I am now. I get to interact with a really great team of people and I’m having the time of my life’. To me that says it all.

13. How can people get in touch with you?

Since I’m on the road so much, the best way to be in touch would be to contact our vice president of business development, Graham H. Scott, who will be happy to respond to your emails and calls. Also, for a bit of fun, we’ve decided to run a quick contest, whereby the first THREE people that contact Graham and reference Innovation Excellence will receive a FREE COPY OF THE BOOK! He can be reached by email and you can visit us on our Website and on YouTube.