Innovation topic of Santa Barbara Executive Roundtable

Steve Sinovic, News-Press Staff Writer

Innovation may not be at the top of the priority lists for many South Coast business owners as they stay busy putting out their latest fires.

But staying stuck in a firefighting mode is not the route to prosperity as America emerges from a brutal recession. Indeed, business owners not taking on the task of leading change — and originating revenue-producing ideas to grow in challenging economic times — may be the ticket to oblivion, asserts a local resident and innovation expert.

“There are five strategies to get your arms around with this thing called ‘innovation,'” explained author and innovation guru Robert Tucker at a recent talk before members of the Santa Barbara Executive Roundtable (SABER) at the University Club. Applying these strategies to a business of any size is one way of ensuring a healthy bottom line, he added.

Mr. Tucker, who is the author of five books on the subject and consultant to businesses around the globe, said these strategies are embracing the opportunity mindset; assaulting your assumptions; passion for the customer; thinking ahead of the curve; and fortifying your idea factory.

With a small flashlight in hand (illustrative of business owners lighting the way), Mr. Tucker’s comments, suggestions and tips for the SABER audience — which is comprised of sole proprietors and owners of small companies — were a quick overview of the big bucks presentations he gives in one- and two-day programs.

He defined innovation as “the act of creating new, unique, exceptional value for customers and your business.” To Mr. Tucker, the commercial viability of an innovation is clearly his particular forte, although innovation of another sort is called upon when times get tough.

“It’s about using different sides of the brain,” explained the former UCLA lecturer and now president of The Innovation Resource Consulting Group, talking about the left-brain mindset involved in cost-cutting, economizing and downsizing a company.

But as a business rightsizes, everybody needs to bring their brains to work, added Mr. Tucker, whose clients include 200 of the Fortune 500 as well as leading companies in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Companies don’t just need ideas, but ideas that can make customers see value, said Mr. Tucker, who profiled 43 “innovation adept” leaders in his recent book, “Innovation is Everybody’s Business.” The people included everyone from receptionists to top execs at Google and Starbucks. Mr. Tucker was also recently interviewed by CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo for a program called “The Business of Innovation.”

He defined innovation in a business setting as essentially three types: product, process and strategy.

“There’s no such thing as a tired commodity, but rather a tired mindset,” said Mr. Tucker. “Will you drive the innovation or wait for something to fall into your lap?” he challenged the business owners. “What’s your next breakthrough idea? Everybody should have something in the pipeline, although that may not be a good word to use right now.

“And ask yourself, ‘Do I have the right people on the bus?'” he said of key staff members and vendors.
Companies in the innovation vanguard have come to realize that their next game- changing idea will just as likely come from their supply chain personnel or a salesperson as it is to come from the new product development team, said Mr. Tucker.

He reminds executives that Starbucks’ Frappucino was invented not at headquarters but by baristas at one of its stores in California. “Creativity is coming up with ideas. Innovation is bringing them to life,” said Mr. Tucker of the synergy between the two.

Interestingly, Mr. Tucker gets few requests to address franchise groups. “They want to stay with tried-and-true formulas,” he said with a shrug.

What the innovation coach was clearly looking for with the SABER group was to fire up new attitudes and help avoid complacency.

He illustrated this with the example of seeing the owner of a popular local restaurant going to a tennis club during lunch hour. Mr. Tucker recalled visiting the eatery several times, and was put off by the lackadaisical service and “the food not tasting as good” as it used to.

“I thought, ‘He (the restaurant owner) is at the tennis club when it’s showtime,'” said Mr. Tucker. “Ladies and gentleman, that’s a metaphor for some businesses in town and that’s unfortunate.”

His last strategy about fortifying the idea factory brought an interesting suggestion.

“Too many business owners are overconnected, overscheduled and overwhelmed,” declared Mr. Tucker, talking about being held hostage to technology such as e-mails and text messaging. “Be more circumspect about your use of technology and appointment scheduling,” said Mr. Tucker. “Don’t let them steamroll you.”

Instead, he suggests a day without e-mails or phone calls and going for a walk, getting into nature.
“Time away helps identify what really gets your creative juices flowing,” said Mr. Tucker.