Monday, 27 September 2010

Innovation, everybody’s business

Innovation, everybody’s business
Tags: innovation | Robert Tucker

Written by Emily Tan
Friday, 13 August 2010 12:47

Innovation author and speaker Robert Tucker likes to tell the following story. About 10 years ago, Tucker attended a dinner held by a Midwest-based manufacturing firm in the US. During the dinner, the firm awarded its “Innovator of the Year” award to the person who had submitted the most ideas to the company’s idea suggestion programme. That year, the award went to the company receptionist.

When asked how she came up with so many ideas, the receptionist answered: “It’s simple. Customers call in all the time and sometimes they aren’t too happy with something we’ve done or failed to do. Instead of getting defensive, I decided to look at it as an opportunity. I always hear them out and then ask my favourite question: ‘What do you think we should do so this never happens again?’ Then I write up their suggestion and submit it to our ‘New Ideas’ programme.”

For Tucker, the receptionist is proof that anyone, regardless of rank, can innovate. “She could have said, ‘Make innovation my business? You’ve got to be kidding. I’m just the receptionist!’ Instead she made innovation the means by which she approached her work,” he said during his seminar organised by the ITD group on “Innovation: Tools and techniques for sustainable growth” in Kuala Lumpur in late June.

“The biggest obstacle to innovation is actually not the company, the system, or the boss. It’s yourself,” says Tucker in an interview with The Edge Financial Daily following his talk. In his upcoming book Innovation is Everybody’s Business to be published in October by John Wiley, Tucker asserts that to innovate, the mindset has to be right.

“If you’re a Defeatist thinker, you’re not generating ideas because you’re dwelling on ‘what might have been’. Sustainers are focused on maintaining status quo and shoot down their own ideas thinking ‘that will never work’. Dreamers generate lots of ideas, but never carry anything out. The Innovator’s mindset, on the other hand, is alert to ideas and action-oriented,” he explains.

The recent economic downturn drove home the point that the world is a disruptive place and companies can go from “champs to chumps” overnight, says Tucker. Organisations increasingly need individuals who are capable of consistently adding value, making the jobs they do easier and better, and then reaching beyond. “It can be as small as problem-solving and getting things done better. Not only does it help the company, it makes the individual employee indispensable,” he adds.

The first step to overcoming a non-productive mindset is to assault certain basic assumptions about innovation. In his seminar, Tucker pointed out that many assume innovation is something you do when you have time. In fact, it can save you time. “It’s how you approach your work. Sometimes it starts with the simple phrase, ‘there has got to be a better way’,” he says.

Another assumption is that innovation is all about inventing that great breakthrough product. “Innovation can also be about adding value where you are. For example, Brent Gow, the director of global payroll consulting and compliance for Starbucks who managed to cut payroll costs by over 50%,” says Tucker.

He went on to explain that Gow asked himself what he could do to lower employment costs. One solution was to try to eliminate paper entirely. Each store was moved to self-service and rated on accuracy as that meant less rework and thus, less cost to the department. “When the downturn hit, Starbucks was forced to shutter 800 stores, cut 5,000 employees and cut US$500 million (RM1.59 billion) in costs. Because of his initiative, which he conducted before the downturn, Gow was in a position to help strategise the company through this time of crisis,” explains Tucker.

Then there’s the assumption that you have to hold a position or be in the “creative” or “innovation” department to innovate. “Remember the receptionist. You can innovate in any job, any department, any organisation but you do have to choose where and when you innovate,” says Tucker.

Finally, people need to rid themselves of the phrase “somebody ought to... ” and just do the job themselves. “Innovation is about action, it’s not enough to have a great idea you’ve got to make it happen.”

The last is easier said than done. What if you have a great idea but no one else sees it?
“That’s where you have to learn how to ‘build the buy-in’, get others to jump on board with your idea,” says Tucker. In his seminar (and his book) he outlines several methods to sell your ideas.

The first is to do your homework to determine the strongest value your idea has for the person or organisation you’re trying to convince. “Help others see what your vision could be,” says Tucker.

Next, network and build relationships so people are more open to your idea, often making it their idea.

How you communicate is also as important as what you say. “Think about who you’re presenting to. Use familiar language and present facts in a way that your listeners respond to. Analytical persons need data, but some are more ‘big picture’ and dislike details,” explains Tucker.

Finally, when all else fails, be persistent but keep trying new ways. “When 3M first launched Post-it Notes, nobody was buying it and the team responsible was getting desperate. Retailers didn’t understand the product and customers didn’t know they needed it. Finally the team took suitcases of the little sticky pads to the business district of Richmond, Virginia and started handing them out to passersby. Once people started using them they couldn’t stop and the rest is innovation history,” narrates Tucker, employing yet another persuasion method he favours, storytelling.

This article appeared on the Management page, The Edge Financial Daily, Aug 13, 2010

Innovation, everybody’s business


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