Interview: Robert Tucker (Part 1)

Our innovation authors series continues with Robert B. Tucker, whose latest book, “Innovation is Everybody’s Business,” will be released Oct. 25.

Since 1986, Robert has coached and consulted managers, executives, and entire teams at organizations ranging from IBM to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to Nokia. He is president of the Innovation Resource Consulting Group in Santa Barbara, Calif.

1. What are the telltale signs that people might not be as indispensible as they assume?

When you receive a pink slip, that’s a definite sign. We were researching this book during the depths of the Great Recession and we kept seeing the thousands upon thousands of employees laid off every month and our hearts went out to them. These folks had, in many cases, years of experience. They had functional skills. They had technical skills, people skills, execution skills. But they weren’t enough. And what I began to realize was that in an economy of disruption and hyper-competition, you are either working toward being expendable or you’re adding more and more unique value to where you become indispensable. And I began to see that all the popular advice on what to do to avoid being laid off was pretty lame when the system wants to eliminate your job.

2. What is your advice to people who want to become indispensable?

The only thing that’ll preserve your job is if you’re part of that select group of people who are essential to keeping the company operating and moving forward, and if you’re helping the company to invent the future.

My strong sense is that in the next three to five years, functional skills and execution skills are not going to be enough. You have to develop your I-Skills (innovation skills), and nobody is born with them, and you can’t study them in school. You have to figure out what they are and master them in yourself by being involved in projects that stretch you.

3. You interviewed 43 “innovation-adept” managers and employees for the book. What were the common traits you discovered in the people who allowed them to “get new things done?”

They didn’t run away from high-risk projects. They saw what needed to get done and they rolled up their sleeves and went to work figuring out how to get their teams or departments moving in the right direction.

We have this media-spawned notion that innovators are monomaniacs on a mission, to use an expression of Peter Drucker’s. Yet the people who were identified by peers or by professional colleagues were humble, quiet doers, not lone wolfs. They went about these innovative projects in a way that was very collaborative. They built bridges even though they were creating transformation in many cases that could be very disruptive to those who were risk-adverse and resistant to change. And they built reputations for competence and team-mindedness and execution before they tried to innovate on a larger scale.

4. What do they practice that everyone else can share to recreate that positive spirit and create, as you say in the book, their own job satisfaction?

Well, I recommend volunteering for projects and assignments that require you to learn and stretch and grow. In a tight market, you can hang back, suck up to the boss, be nice and hope when the layoffs come, people will think you’re such a sweet person that you should be spared, which is a fallacy. It is: how much value do you add and can we get by without you? Can we ship your job to China or India for a fifth the cost?

When you’re getting new things done for the CEO, you’re part of that small group in any organization that isn’t watching what’s happening, you’re making things happen.

As we interviewed people, we noticed that they enjoyed deeper relationships, autonomy at work, they had a seat at the table of strategic decision making, they enjoyed incredible challenges, and yes, they created their own job satisfaction. As one manager told us, “I’ve never been so excited as I am now. I get to work with a truly talented group of people and we enjoy the challenge.”

Check back tomorrow for part 2 of our interview, which will cover common missteps that companies make in trying to engage the masses in an innovation initiative.

Hi Bryan! Interesting

Hi Bryan! Interesting interview. It reminds me of what Seth Godin said at #WIF10: Be an indispensable artist, not an interchangeable cog. Looking forward to reading Part 2!

Stephanie Susman

@FHInnovation