#281 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 6          June 1997

Succeeding With Your Bright Ideas
by Robert B. Tucker

Mr. Tucker is author of Winning the Value Revolution (Career Press, Franklin Lakes, NJ, 1995), and is a speaker on innovation strategies for business.  (Phone 805-682-1012; email 74454.1406@compuserve.com or www.speakers.com/tucker.html)

To navigate successfully in a future of constant change, you must pay closer attention to the way you invite new ideas into your responsibilities.  And you must work to strengthen the process of bringing new ideas to life.  As Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric, said, “If the rate of change inside an organization is less than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight.”

That’s the key message I learned from interviewing more than 100 leading innovators, and researching 500 more.  I found that their processes of coming up with ideas and bringing them to life have many common elements.  I’ll present the major ones to help you get good ideas and move forward on them.

Assault Your Assumptions

Think about the last time you ran across a situation that was so frustrating, so in need of improvement, that you found yourself muttering, “There’s got to be a better way.”  The minute you uttered that thought, you assaulted your assumptions.  You re-identified the situation as a “problem” rather than just “a hassle, but the way things are.”

When you first tackle your assumptions, you begin the process that leads to innovation.  This flash of impatience with the status quo leads you to challenge not only your own assumptions, but the assumptions of others as well.

I read an article about Les McCraw, chairman and CEO of Fluor Corporation, who upon assuming the leadership of that firm, began to realize how hidebound and rigid the organization had become.  His solution was to invite a group of 4th graders from a local school to brainstorm with a group of managers.  The article didn’t mention what results had come from that unusual session, so I called the company to find out.  It turned out that those fourth graders didn’t come up with anything truly innovative.  As I hung up the phone, I thought, “Too bad.  That would have been an excellent example of creativity to use in my seminars.”  But as I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn’t the results, or the lack of them, that mattered.  It was the larger message that McCraw was sending his people:  to shake up their assumptions.

Next time you’re faced with a situation where you don’t like the options, ask yourself and others involved: “What else can you think of that might be better?”  Then pause, and wait for creativity to kick in.  People will rise to the challenge to think outside the box if only they are asked to do so.

Pursue the Possibilities

The foremost trait among innovators is that they are opportunity-oriented.  They don’t just hatch ideas, they run with them.  Bill Kelly, a vice president of Plymouth Rock Assurance Corporation in Boston, noticed how his customers resented having to go through the bureaucratic and tedious process known as claims adjustment after they’d had a fender bender.  So he came up with a “better way.”  Why not go to the customers instead of having them come to us?  And so the company’s Crashbuster response units were born.  The adjuster videotapes the damage, hits a few keys on his laptop computer and immediately issues a check for the needed body work.

Kelly told me that he faced lots of skepticism when he was trying to gather support for the idea.  Chief among them was, “it will cost too much!”  But by following through on his possibility, the company enjoys the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any auto insurer in the area; and it also has the lowest cost of doing business.

Hatching ideas is great.  But unless you pursue them with passion, that’s all they ever become:  ideas.  And, we’ve all heard, “Ideas are a dime a dozen.”

Track the Trends

One universal characteristic among the change masters is that they are voracious readers.  Rinaldo Brutoco, co-founder of Red Rose Gallery, a successful catalog company, reads everything from the Wall Street Journal to matchbook covers looking for ideas, looking to learn, and looking for what people are going to want next.

Innovators also have a knack for gleaning insights from people.  Akio Morita, founder of Sony Corporation, wanted to design products that would sell in the U.S.  So he moved his family to New York in the 1960’s to develop a deeper understanding of the American consumer.  It would have been easy to socialize with other Japanese expatriates; instead, he and his family purposefully reached out to make new friends among the natives.  Result:  Sony America became a phenomenal success, introducing one new product after another.

It’s so easy to become isolated in your viewpoints as the result of your lifestyle and age group; but feed your mind on different points of view, talk to people from different walks of life, and look for patterns of change in your conversations and travels.  If you’re young, “walk a mile in the shoes” of an octogenarian, and vice versa.  Go out of your way to talk to a co-employee who has expertise and interests most different than yours.  Doing so will not only be friendly, it will increase your confidence and ability to come up with ideas that are in step with the times.

Fortify Your Idea Factory

Innovators are super-conscious of the process of how they invite ideas into their lives, and what they can do with ideas once they hatch them.  That’s why they take the time to inspect and fortify their idea factories the same way an accomplished golfer keeps working to improve his or her drive, chipping and putting.

The more you work with your ideas and pay attention to what works best for you, the more ideas you’ll invite into your life.  And the more ideas you’ll be able to pursue.  Pay attention to when you get your best ideas, make the effort to “download” them to paper, disk or tape, and know what to do when you get creatively stuck.  Perhaps all you need is to take a walk, enjoy a mini-vacation or putter in the garden.

Go With Your Gut

Entrepreneurs whom I’ve interviewed often talk about how they “went with their intuition” even when everybody around them thought they were crazy.  Innovators kept referring to “trusting their gut.”  What did they mean?  Doug Greene, is the innovative chairman of New Hope Communications, a consortium of health and fitness-related trade magazines.  “If I don’t feel good in my stomach about a decision,” Greene told me, “I don’t care if the numbers say we’re going to make a billion dollars.  That’s how important intuition is to me.  It’s an actual feeling either way.  When it doesn’t feel good, it’s just like a nervous stomach, and when a decision feels right, it’s like a great meal.”

Innovation, by its nature, means that you’re doing something that’s never been done before.  There are no step-by-step recipes, and no market research can guarantee success.  But going with your gut can become a kind of sixth sense telling you to “keep the faith and continue” or “throw in the towel.”  It can help you read people’s true intentions and character, it can help you spot trouble spots, think of novel solutions to problems, and alert you when something’s not working.

Face the Feedback

People who consistently make ideas come alive are eager for advice and constructive criticism.  They’ve developed the ego-strength to listen because they know that it just might help improve performance.  They’re constantly polling their customers and potential customers (and everyone else) to understand better how their ideas can be improved, altered and adapted to better meet the needs of others.  Innovation-minded people harvest more ideas because they ask for them.  In their eagerness to succeed, they face the feedback, and they use it to guide decisions and avoid false assumptions.

Build the Buy-In

Behind every innovation lies a champion, somebody who orchestrated the work of other people to do what was necessary.  Those whom I’ve studied were not all natural-born salespeople or promoters.  Far from it.  But they didn’t run from managing this vital part of the process; for to have done so would have meant failure.  Ideas do not sell themselves, no matter how compelling.

Innovators learn to persuade others, to gain trust, to think differently about their challenges.  They learn to define and articulate the benefits of their ideas to an often indifferent, and frequently hostile, world.  They learn how to win cooperation from their bosses, manufacturers, finance, sales and other gatekeepers of implementation.  Innovators learn to assess the critical role of timing in selling their ventures. They learn that facing the heat is inevitable.  Obstacles and barriers, crises and setbacks are part of the journey.  Rejection is just another opportunity for feedback and course correction.  Mostly, they learn that passion and persistence win out.

“Until one is committed,” wrote the poet Goethe, “there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.  But the moment one definitely commits, providence moves too.  All sorts of things occur to assist that would never otherwise have occurred.”  And Goethe ends this passage in what might be called the innovator’s credo.  “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.  Begin it now.”

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