Make Innovation Everybody’s Business

by Robert B. Tucker

Make Innovation Everybody's Business“People around here wait to be told what to do,” grumbled the CEO of a billion dollar foods company the other day, just as I was about to speak to his managers. “But things are changing so rapidly in our markets that I can’t possibly come up with all the good ideas. I need ideas from everybody and frankly I’m just not getting them.”

What surprised me about this leader’s comment was that he seemed to think his people were to blame for their risk adverse behavior.

If you believe, as I do, that behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated, today’s outbreak of organizational passivity was entirely predictable. The last several years of global recession, economic uncertainty and downsizings caused millions of workers to lose their jobs. Play it safe behavior became the norm in many organizations. Being pleasant, pliant, popular and political might just bring on the reward of being spared in the next round of cuts.

But now, as organizations move from survival mode to restoring growth in a still challenging economy, it’s time for leaders to dramatically change the behavior they reward. It’s the perfect time to make innovation everybody’s business.

Here’s the problem. A layoff-prone culture confers a penalty for risk-taking behavior onto the shoulders of individual workers. They respond by keeping their heads down, and their ideas to themselves. The leader’s job today is to reward innovative behavior, and make sure people don’t get punished for taking risks.

An innovative culture makes sure that all risks are born by the company, and responsibility for coming up with new ideas and bringing them to life is part of the job whether you work in supply chain or purchasing or training.

A newly released IBM survey shows that CEOs are aware of the challenge they face. Asked to name the most important leadership quality needed to thrive in post-downturn economy, 1541 CEOs, general managers and senior public sector leaders in 60 countries cited “creativity” more often than any other trait, including management discipline, rigor or operational acumen.

Having rewarded operational excellence for so long, suddenly asking for bold ideas is bound to fall on deaf ears. Clearly what CEOs mean by “creativity” is more than just problem solving skills or the ability to hatch a winning marketing campaign, although these traits are certainly welcome.

What firms need are more people with the skillset, mindset, and toolset of the innovator. These are the people on your payroll with the proven ability to help you drive your agenda forward, seize emerging opportunities, slash costs, enter new markets, and jumpstart revenue growth. These are the people that academics and others are trying to describe when they talk of the “war for talent.”

These are people with Innovation Skills and they are indispensable to their firms.

For a forthcoming book, my team of students from UCSB and I interviewed 43 managers and employees who were recognized by their peers or colleagues as being “innovation-adept.” We wanted to know what their differentiating skills were. We sought to find out how they acquired these skills, and which ones they believed were essential to delivering results.

The results will be published in October in the forthcoming book, Innovation is Everybody’s Business: Making Yourself Indispensable in Today’s Hypercompetitive World.

We interviewed people like Brent Gow, who revolutionized Starbucks’ payroll department and halved costs while raising employee satisfaction, all before his company was remotely thinking of cost-cutting. Brent was recently named Payroll Person of the Year by the American Payroll Association.

We sought out people like Jennifer Rock, a marketing department manager at Best Buy, who helped transform the company’s intranet into an ongoing dialogue between headquarters and the stores, in the process reducing employee turnover by 40 percent.

And we heard from Lisa Peters, who was tapped by the newly appointed CEO of Bank of New York to spearhead the merger with Mellon Bank. The three year unification was so successful that Peters was awarded Human Resources Person of the Year by Society of Human Resource Professionals.

Key finding: instead of the maverick social outliers portrayed as the true innovators by the media, we instead found humble, collaborative and team-oriented individuals who were quietly getting new things done for their organizations.

Time and again, what we found were people who had developed unconventional skills on the job to compliment and turbo-charge their functional skills and execution abilities. We found employees who had come to be regarded as indispensable to their colleagues and organizations because their skill-sets were so uncommon.

What surprised me the most was the amount of personal satisfaction and autonomy these people enjoyed, despite the fact that they were involved in high profile projects where the workload was tremendous.

All too often, we make innovation more complicated than it has to be. We get off on tangents that take us nowhere.

If you want bigger bolder ideas from everybody, keep it simple and just say so. Start by analyzing what behavior you’ve rewarded during the downturn and how much your culture has been disrupted by downsizing and fear. Next, identify the innovation-adept employees who work for you and give them support and encouragement. Point to their accomplishments at your next management meeting and say, “this is exactly what I want all of you to do more of.”

Do this and you’ll start getting more ideas bubbling up from your employees. Invariably, when asked about rewards, the managers and individual contributors we interviewed felt they were being rewarded in richer, deeper relationships, constant learning, endless variety, and incredible challenge.

As one manager described it, “I’ve never been so happy in my work as I am now. I get to collaborate with a really great team of people and I’m having the time of my life.”

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Robert TuckerRobert B. Tucker is the President of The Innovation Resource Consulting Group. He is a speaker, seminar leader and an expert in the management of innovation and assisting companies in accelerating ideas to market.

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  1. What CEO’s may want to remember that they have laid off so many people, that the remaining employees do not have time to innovate, they are too busy trying to keep up with the Status Quo requests in the lean environment. I’d like to think that risk taking when it’s successful is rewarded, but I’m not seeing anyone getting big raises when the job market (and resulting requirement to reward someone to stay) is so poor.

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