Four Key Principles of Personal Innovation

People can be innovative in their work, no matter what their job. Robert B. Tucker explores four key principles of personal innovation in this excerpt from his new book, Innovation is Everybody

This article is an excerpt from Robert B. Tucker’s new book, Innovation is Everybody’s Business: How to Make Yourself Indispensable in Today’s Hypercompetitive World.

Anne Mulcahy, the chief executive officer (CEO) who revived Xerox after a brush with bankruptcy, was asked recently whether she looked for different qualities in job candidates than in years past.

“We look for adaptability and flexibility,” she replied. “We have to change all the time. The people who really do the best are those who actually sense the need to change, and enjoy the lack of definition around their roles and what they can contribute.”

Asked how she gets a sense of whether a person has that quality, she explained that Xerox now looks at a candidate’s “appetite for not just vertical career ladders, but their appetite for what I call horizontal experiences, where it wasn’t always just about a title or the next layer up. And there was this desire to learn new things, to kind of grab on to things that were maybe even somewhat nontraditional.”

What you’re going to find in this book are nontraditional skills. They will demand you learn new ways. They will require that you adopt a new mind set. In this chapter, we’ll begin our exploration of personal innovation by examining what I call the four I-Skill Principles. They are:

PRINCIPLE 1: Innovation is not something you do after you get your work done; it’s how you do your work

Innovation is about approaching your daily work and the challenges you face with an open mind and a creative, can-do attitude. It’s about seeking unconventional solutions to the problems on your plate. At work, it’s looking at everything you do and figuring out where you can do better, in less time, with fewer motions, in a way that adds value to both internal and external customers.

Instead of approaching a single task with the attitude, “Okay, now I‘ve got to get creative,” the innovator approaches everything in life with this attitude. Instead of looking at “being creative” as something you need to do consciously, see it as something you do unconsciously, like breathing.

You can innovate in any job, any department, or any organization. Innovation is about taking action.
Ordinary people “innovate” every day. They find slightly better, easier ways to accomplish some routine task. They figure out new ways to close a sale, design a clever slide, increase production, or satisfy an internal customer’s request for a solution to a problem that has never come up before.

The list goes on and on. And sometimes they’ll notice an opportunity with great potential, which is what happened to one facilities manager.

Paulette I, a facilities manager, got the call from a new boss asking for help in transforming a division. “I was working at a large bank, supporting the head of the credit card division,” she explains. “He came in wanting to create a new culture. I got inspired. I began looking at how workspace could add value to the culture. I thought long and hard about what that could mean to me as a facilities manager. I concluded it meant I needed to look out ahead, anticipate our needs in the future, and not wait for management to figure out how facilities management could help. I needed to go to them, and I did.”

The basic role of facilities management is providing space for people to work in. “A lot of people in this profession leave it there,” says Paulette. “We’ve talked for years in our professional association about being more strategic. That’s often meant life-cycle management of buildings, looking for greater cost savings and green buildings. To me, being strategic means something different. It means innovating, finding new and better ways of doing things,” she explains. “There are no hard and fast rules for doing what I do. Things are changing so fast that you ’re confronted daily with problems and situations you’ve never faced before, and I’ve been doing this work for 20 years.”

The same attitude of experimentation that permeates the research lab can fill every area of your thinking. It involves coming up with possibilities and putting ideas to work to solve problems and generate opportunities — for yourself, your team, your company, and your career. It’s not something you do after you get your job done. It’s how you get your job done.

PRINCIPLE 2: Innovation is about more than inventing new products; it’s about figuring out how to add value where you are

When the global economic crisis hit, everything changed. Four dollar lattes suddenly became unaffordable luxuries. McDonald’s attacked with McCafé. Dunkin’ Donuts began serving premium coffee. Starbucks was forced to shutter 800 stores, lay off 5,000 employees, cut $500 million in costs, offer discounts, advertise, and look for even more ways to become efficient.

Innovation is about more than innovating new products. It’s understanding where you can add the most value where you are.

PRINCIPLE 3: You can innovate in any job, in any department, in any organization

Many times I’ve heard people voice the assumption that “My company doesn’t want me to be creative. They just want us to get our work done.” The question isn’t whether innovation is wanted and needed in your firm, it’s where and when.

“As a first-year auditor, I am not encouraged to be innovative,” grumbles Jonathan A., at a Big Four accounting firm in Los Angeles. “We are given large amounts of tedious work and asked to complete it as accurately and quickly as possible. They do not want us to be creative or try things our way. My peers and I often feel like we could improve the procedures, but it is discouraged. They want us to listen to directions and complete things exactly as we are told without resistance.”

A lot of young workers will no doubt relate to Jonathan’s lament. He’s bright, ambitious, and eager to make changes. He’s also in the apprentice phase of his career, so innovation is not appropriate just yet. Being a good apprentice means mastering how things are done in your organization and allowing yourself to be amazed that they work as well as they do.

Be curious when a veteran employee or manager tells you why things are done the way they are. Certainly listen to that voice in your head when you see a better way of doing something. And then channel that big – picture opportunity- spotting mind set right back into how you do your work.

In the course of our conversation, Jonathan mentioned that quite often he has to “eat hours.” He explained: “Let’s say I am given a work paper to complete and they budget ten hours for me to finish it. I work my ass off but it takes me 12 hours to complete. I can either book 12 hours and look inefficient or only book 10 to look good. If I were to charge 12 hours on that project, my manager would question me. HR would want to know why it took me so long. I would have to write a memo explaining all the issues. It is much easier to just eat the hours.”

“Are any of your first – year colleagues not having to eat hours?” I asked. “Have they figured out how to shave time while still following procedures?” Jonathan tells me that “the innovators here are the most efficient workers, cutting out unnecessary testing, discovering quicker ways to finish work papers, testing multiple things at once, etc. Innovation for you would be to figure out what they do that you don’t. Ask them about their techniques, and make changes in your methods.”

Certainly there are those jobs where, at first glance, innovation would seem to be nobody’s business. Certainly we don’t want any innovative thinking from airline pilots, right? We want them to follow the rules, conform to procedures, and get us safely to our destination.

But what about when the pilot is not actually flying the plane? Wouldn’t he or she be able to contribute ideas for increasing safety, or cutting fuel consumption, or reducing turnaround time at airports? In the wrong context, deviating from established procedure to try out some new idea would be a serious breach of company policy. But in the right context, any job in any department in any organization can use an injection of creativity — as long as it’s done in the appropriate context, at the appropriate time.

Had I not probed Jonathan’s situation further, I would have come away convinced that he’d found one of them. As we continued speaking, he offered: “The firm asks that we learn to do things their way for the first few years. Once we have been promoted, we are able to try things our own way with total responsibility for our testing.”

PRINCIPLE 4: Innovation is about taking action

Nurse Sue Kinnick was in charge of tracking and reducing medical errors at the Topeka, Kansas, Veterans Hospital. Sue’s research showed that medication errors — either giving the patient the wrong medicine, the incorrect dosage, or a duplicate dose — were common. One estimate was that 770,000 medication errors occurred each year in U.S. hospitals, while untold cases went unreported.

On a trip to Seattle, as a rental car agent scanned a bar code on her agreement and issued a receipt, a thought popped into Sue’s head: “If they can do this with rental cars, why can’t we do this with medicines? ”She was so excited about the idea she almost missed her flight.

By the time she got to her office, Sue had become convinced that a hospital bar-code system had the potential to greatly reduce medical errors and save many lives. An added benefit was that it would streamline the process for delivering prescription drugs to patients. Sue and her team became passionate champions for the new method, got seed capital of $ 50,000 approved, built a prototype, worked with the scanner manufacturer to develop a bigger screen, and collaborated with software developers. They piloted the system on a 30-bed long-term care ward for a year and then rolled it out in the entire Topeka hospital. Soon the entire VA system converted to Sue’s way.

At the Topeka hospital where Sue worked, errors involving the wrong medication or dosage have been cut by two thirds. Errors involving the wrong patient or the medication given at the wrong time have been reduced by more than 90 percent. Even though breast cancer would cut her career short, Sue continued her crusade for as long as she could. On her dying day, she told her colleagues gathered around her in the hospital to keep looking for ways to reduce medication errors and serve our veterans.

Like all of us, Sue could have had a good idea and not followed through with it. She could have blamed bureaucracy. She could have convinced herself that innovating a new method went “beyond her job description.” She could have turned the idea over to someone else to pursue. But she didn’t — she took action. And she overcame the obstacles and built the buy-in for her new idea and refused to take “no” for an answer.

Sue Kinnick knew that it’s not enough to have a good idea. You also have to take action.

These principles show that innovation is a mind set, not a job title. That innovation means adding value. That innovation is possible for everyone. And that innovation is about action.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Innovation is Everybody’s Business, by Robert B. Tucker. Copyright © 2011 by Robert B. Tucker.