Developing Innovation Skills

By Robert B. Tucker


In a time of economic disruption, hypercompetition and the constant pressure to outsource more and more routine functions (and the employees who perform them), advice on professional success always seems to convey the same tired message: Be visible. Don’t make enemies. Brown nose the boss. And work even harder.

Yet, as I travel around the world, working with managers and executives, I find people already working hard. Simply working harder will not be enough, and may lead to a burnout. Relying solely on your functional skills and expertise will not be enough either if your job can be replaced by software or outsourcing. Even your years of experience on the job may not have the cachet it once did.

The good news is there is something you can do to accelerate your career if you’re willing to consider it. Based on research and interviews with 43 standout employees whom peers, bosses and colleagues identified as indispensable, I believe the most powerful way to join their ranks enjoy incredible job satisfaction in the process – is to focus on mastering a new set of strategic aptitudes that I call I Skills.

Help Wanted: But only value adders need apply.

While organizations around the world are trying to eliminate jobs, they are suddenly, desperately in need of professionals with the abilities and skills to deliver unconventional results. They need people who can slash costs without sacrificing service. They need employees to add unique value that keeps current customers loyal and helps develop new business.

Innovation is about more than inventing new products and services. It’s about figuring out how and where to add value where you are and where you work. Innovation is the act of coming up with ideas and successfully bringing them to life to solve problems and create opportunities. It’s also about bringing your total self to the work you do – and thriving amidst the chaos of changing times. As one of the 43 managers we interviewed expressed it, “I’ve never felt such satisfaction doing my work as I do now. I get to work with a really great team of people and I’m having the time of my life.”

Based on 20 years experience as an innovation consultant and coach, and on 43 interviews for my new book Innovation is Everybody’s Business, here are the seven fundamental I-Skills you need to master:


1. Embrace the Opportunity Mindset.

Where others see problems, you see potential. When others bog down in endless details, you climb up to the roof to see the big picture. In other words, you realize that perspective determines everything.

My friend Mark Sanborn, motivational speaker and author of the bestselling book, The Fred Factor, found he had a growing aversion when the phone rang. So he wrote the words “obligation or opportunity?” on a Post-It note beside his phone. Now, every time he picks up the phone, he does so with an attitude of service, gratitude and positive expectancy. To shift perspective, challenge yourself to come up with solutions, see the big picture, and unleash creativity. Ask yourself: what are 10 ways to address this problem? Or: what are 10 things that are working well in my department right now? In this way, you can’t help but activate your opportunity mindset.

2. Assault your Assumptions

Have you ever overheard yourself utter the words “there’s got to be a better way”? If so, you have challenged the belief that the status quo is the best or the only way – and you invited new thinking. You assaulted your assumptions. Innovators constantly challenge personal, professional and industry assumptions in order to breed new unfettered thinking.

Years of experience in an industry can be a detriment to assumption assaulting. “It’s always been done that way” or “we tried that (new approach) and it didn’t work” are often blocks to challenging the present system. Freely asking such questions as “I wonder if we…” or “what would an entirely different way of handling this situation look like?” Stimulate new approaches.

Experience, while valuable, can infect us with biases that blind us to new possibilities. Innovators know to press the reset button, both on a mental and emotional level, and allow the questions to start flowing. They know that innovation begins where assumptions end.

3. Develop a Passion for the End Customer.

The late Steve Jobs designed products that rock people’s world. How? By getting vast teams of specialists to collaborate and embrace the notion that second-best efforts are unacceptable. Steve never settled for anything less than awesome, and that is his legacy.

You also create “products” for a living. That slide deck you are working on. The charity drive you’re contributing to is a product.  Even that email memo you sent out five minutes ago is a product. Everything you create is your product – and every product has a customer.

Like the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, the best products are those that anticipate the customer’s need and offer a superior solution.

To turn your products into icons of your indispensability, strive to acquire empathy for the end customer and force yourself to listen deeply to what your customer wants to accomplish. Step outside the bubble of your culture, interact with more people, and allow yourself to be fascinated with what they say. This will give you a sense of what the outside world thinks, feels, and perceives about your organization, as opposed to what people inside assume.

4. Think Ahead of the Curve.

Ever try walking around in the dark without a flashlight? It’s an unsettling feeling and can often lead to bumps and bruises. In today’s hypercompetitive world, you need your own version of a flashlight. Things happen fast when you aren’t paying attention. With your flashlight in hand, however, you will find things do not happen quite so suddenly. In this case, your flashlight is your ability to track emerging trends, and to assess and interpret the changes as they relate to your world. Do this as a matter of course and you are positioned to transform trends into new opportunities and strategize advantage for yourself, your organization and your career.

5. Continuously Fortify Your “Idea Factory”

Everybody has ideas. Only relatively few know how to keep their “idea factories” enriched to churn out a wealth of them on a consistent basis, when and where needed. Here are some suggestions.

Enhance your creative environment. Turn your office into a creative place to work and brainstorm ideas. Also, look for inspiration outside the office.

Know when to unitask and when it’s okay to multitask. People think they’re more productive when they are working on multiple tasks at once, but research shows otherwise. Michelangelo didn’t multitask when he was in full creative mode. Neither should you. If you are prepping for a meeting or making an important decision, that’s the time to focus on one task at a time: unitask. To put it simply, creativity takes practice. It’s not a gift from the gods, but the result of preparation, routine, and discipline.

Also, get in the habit of downloading your ideas. If you don’t capture them the moment they strike, you’re unlikely to remember them later. The mind is terrific for coming up with ideas but is an equally terrible storage device.

6. Strive to become a Standout Collaborator.

If you are a genius in your area of expertise, but your collaboration skills are lacking, you’ll never achieve your potential, and you’ll never become indispensable. To collaborate is “to work together, especially in a joint work effort.” Collaborative teams are how big projects actually get done.

7. Practice the art of Building the Buy-in.

Selling new ideas has always been about surmounting obstacles, overcoming objections and gaining commitment for change. How do you accomplish this? Isolate the benefits and solicit feedback from friends, mentors and others you trust. Then, think about the innovation style of the person or persons you’ll be presenting your ideas to. For instance, if your audience is more “big picture” oriented, don’t bog them down with details. Use their hot button words. Innovators use familiar language.

The 3M team responsible for launching Post-It Notes was growing desperate. Senior Management was threatening to kill the product as a loser. Nobody was buying it. Then, Post it Notes team members decided to take to the streets. They packed took suitcases of the little stocky pads and handed them out to passersby’s. That was the turning point. People started sticking them everywhere and began asking for them at retail stores. The new product took off like a rocket. It went viral.



If you want to thrive and prosper and surge ahead in a time of economic uncertainty, start thinking about  your I-Skills. Think about them as they relate to your job, the projects you are completing right now, and the initiatives you want to suggest. Master the mindset, skillset and toolset of the innovator, and soon your reputation for powerful results will precede you wherever you go.