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An Innovator's Guide to Finding Your Creative Way

Oct. 3, 2018
An expert in identifying innovative people and places insists they're not special. Following five easy steps will put you on the same path to creative enlightenment.

Lost somewhere in the woods at the feet of the Grand Tetons—without a flashlight and using a ranger map to shield his body from the rain, Robert Tucker learned a lesson he hopes manufacturing leaders will take heed of.

"Conditions change rapidly when you are unprepared," the president of the Innovation Resource told an audience of about 3,000 at the Emerson Global Users Exchange conference in San Antonio. Therefore, he advises, always arm yourself with the right tools.

There's one even better than a Swiss Army knife or duct tape that every factory and plant should have at the ready to drive growth: Innovation. Likening it to "nothing more than a tool like a flashlight," Tucker stresses innovation is not some innate esoteric gift afforded to creative geniuses, but a skill all people and all companies need and must hone over time. Call it continuous improvement for your brain.

And innovation is the intangible that separates the Nokias from the Apples, the Blockbusters from the Netflixes, and there are five steps he offered to put businesses on solid ground as aftershocks from the digital transformation shake apart the traditions they were built on.

1. Track Trends

Tucker stressed the importance of looking at trends in emerging technology to better prepare yourself in this "Age of Acceleration." Moore's Law has held true since the 1960s, he argues and will continue to drive the tech and create new players to learn about.

He adorned this with a sobering prediction from Richard Foster, an accomplished analyst and Yale School of Management lecturer: "In 10 years, more than ¾ of the S&P 500 will be companies that we have not heard of yet."

Tucker then went over the ebbing employment opportunities gleaned by BLS data, such as typists and foundry mold and core makers, and available jobs flowing in, such as solar panel installers (up 105%) and statisticians (33% increase).

"If [a job] can be reduced to a series of steps, will be automated," he said.

Companies aren’t safe either. Take Radio Shack for example, which was made obsolete by online commerce and much more tech being built into smartphones.

"Irrelevance happens and it happens faster and faster than ever before," Tucker noted.

This is not an unavoidable natural disaster though. there is time to position your business for success, as long as you embrace new technology and absorb all the info you can about it.

[As a technology writer, I approve of this message.]

2. Assault Assumptions

There are plenty of reasons to give up and move to a van down by the river, or wherever crestfallen executives go when a rival crushes their spirits: There's no time to innovate. I can't compete against Amazon. You can’t make things in America anymore.

These are assumptions. As a young and presumptuous punk submariner, my salty-tongued sonar chief reminded me daily that assumptions were the mother of all ****-ups. Tucker, decidedly more measured in his nautical language said, "Assumptions are like barnacles slowing us down."

Either way, stop assuming and go out and do something new. Airbnb and Uber did just that and disrupted their industries without owning any hotels or cars respectively.

3. Embrace the Opportunity Mindset

Innovation is not a talent ingrained in your DNA, but rather learned behavior, Tucker argued.

You have to practice it, though through the years he identified a few common traits of the best innovators.

  • They think life is a game of discovery
  • They chase solutions to problems, not how to make money
  • They truly want people to use what they create

"Innovation isn't something you do after you get your work done," Tucker said. "It's how you approach your work."

And if you approach it the right way, targeting the best value-add, you don’t have to wait for a mythical eureka moment or happy accident to pop up, as was the case with the discovery of Scotchguard's repelling effects or Viagra's… well, you know.

4. Cultivate Culture

You can’t cultivate game-changing innovation in the absence of a healthy culture. But what are the predictors of an unhealthy one?

As a litmus test, Tucker presented a bevy of insights from a 2006 survey canvassing Nokia's "high potential leaders"—frustrations we've all identified with at some point clinging to the greasy rungs of the corporate ladder. These innovation barriers ranged from being a "risk-averse culture" to a lack of time and resources to work on new ideas to being constrained by a short-sighted C-suite not supplying enough resources.

While Nokia was struggling with overcoming creative barriers, Apple was obliterating conventions. The following year, Apple released the iPhone; Nokia released the N95. The difference isn’t as much night and day as it is "Antique Roadshow" versus "Modern Marvels."

Sure, that's a fun little cautionary tale for your next cocktail party, but how can leadership instantly change a culture? By doing the one thing totally counterintuitive to all the A-types in the C-Suite: letting someone else lead the discussion.

It's asking the right question and just listening. Tucker says it's the trick one receptionist used to become her company's most regarded innovator. She simply jotted down the gripes customers who called had, asked how they would fix them when and forwarded the responses to her bosses.

But you could (and should) be more proactive.

At Best Buy, for example, management didn't rely on a platitudinal—and rarely used—open door policy. Bosses invite employees and customers to sit down and just talk to them, while they listen. Tucker says Best Buy's "listening chair" approach, and agenda-less town halls reversed a widespread turnover epidemic of more than 80% to under 50%.

5. Fortify Your Idea Factory

Creative moments are the odd punctuations between the long run-on sentences of life, a fact proved by the time-management stats Tucker concluded with.

So find a place you can be free to think and imagine and cherish it. For Tucker, it was his device-free meditation tent overlooking the Pacific.

Where do you come up with your best ideas? In the shower? The car? Or are you like me and it's that narrow window at night between tossing and turning and night terrors? Wherever you are, when your muse strikes, write it down as soon as possible. In the car, take a voice memo with your smartphone. Just get it down before it's lost forever.

And if you're still wondering about Tucker being lost in the Wyoming wilderness, when day broke, he realized he was 30 feet from his tent. I guess that goes to show we are often closer than we think to finding our way. The delineating factor is the tools we bring along.