"We Don't Have Time Not to Innovate"

By: Samantha Whitehorne

Innovation is a mindset that today's association leaders must cultivate, according to author and innovation expert Robert Tucker.

If you don't make time for innovation, you and your organization are bound to fail, according to Robert Tucker, author of Innovation Is Everybody's Business. He recently spoke with Associations Now about what innovation is and the number-one skill association professionals need to successfully innovate.

Associations Now: How would you define innovation?

Robert Tucker: Innovation is the act of coming up with ideas and bringing those ideas to life. Successful organizations are better at that, and they're better at energizing and tapping the creativity of their people.

Innovation is not something you do after you get your work done. It's how you approach your work. It's approaching any challenge that you face with an open mind and a creative-solution orientation. This applies to anyone, whether they're managing a one-person staff or hundreds.

Why is innovation so important today?

We're in an era where yesterday's ideas just don't work as well. And so we're constantly having to reinvent, to rethink.

I think that the reality for many associations is that they're being disrupted by a confluence of forces today and new competitors, some of which may not even be visible. So I think that every day you have to say, "Hey, I'm in an industry that is being disrupted. There's no guarantee that my association will be able to retain members going forward here, and the younger generations are completely challenging the need to be members and joiners."

Associations are in a battle for the loyalty of members and how they define value, because if they are getting value from their association, they're going to rejoin and attend meetings. My strong suggestion is not to compare yourself against other association execs, because that is not going to spur you to action and get you thinking outside the box. You have to challenge yourself to do what may seem rather impossible to survive today.

How would you respond to execs who say they don't have time for innovation?

We don't have time not to innovate. And having said that, let me suggest that I am very familiar with the explosion of interruptions, the explosion of requests from members and board members and staffers who want a piece of your time, who want a piece of your thinking, who need you right now to make a decision.

That sort of threat is increasing almost exponentially. That's why it's absolutely essential to set some boundaries, to go offline, to develop some daily disciplines to where you balance the tactical with the strategic. You balance the need for execution with the need for investigation and innovative thinking.

And it is a challenge. But innovation has got to be on the calendar, and time with you has got to be on the calendar. This is a trait I see in the most highly effective, innovation-adept leaders. Innovation is a discipline for them, just as working out is a discipline for an athlete. If it's not, then you're just sort of lollygagging along and being a cause, rather than being an effect.

In the book, you talk about the "I-skills" people need to be successful. Which one is most important in the association environment?

Definitely becoming a standout collaborator. Some of the things that I talk about in that realm are: How effective are you at building buy-in, building consensus, and forming cross-functional or collaborative teams? I often recommend that you really examine how you feel when you're collaborating and it's going well and you can't wait to get to work and be with this group of people.

It's all a matter of paying attention to the very subtle things there. We get so wound up in wanting to innovate and do these new things, but first we have to bring everybody along, and it starts with some chemistry. That's when innovation will happen.

Robert Tucker is president of the Innovation Resource Consulting Group in Santa Barbara, California. Email: [email protected]

Samantha Whitehorne is managing editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Online Extra: Innovation at Every Level

Robert Tucker shares more insights from his new book, Innovation Is Everybody's Business, including the role of creativity in innovation and how young professionals can bring their innovation skills to the workplace.

Interview by Samantha Whitehorne

Associations Now: Can you talk some more about the role creativity plays in innovation?

Robert Tucker: I've read probably 100 books on creativity, and I have to say that Twyla Tharp, a choreographer who's choreographed I think over 130 different productions around the world in major cities, wrote a book on creativity [The Creative Habit]that really clicked with me. There was no baloney in there, and it was just like, "That's it. That's what I need to do to help businesspeople who say, ‘I'm not creative. I can't do that.'" And it's essential today.

But the other thing is that there's an art form to coaxing out the good ideas of the people that report to you and work with you on your team. Yes, you may be a detailed person. You may be somebody who kind of moved up through the ranks because you are excellent in execution, and now suddenly you find you need beaucoup new ideas because your association has this challenge and this challenge and this challenge.

And you're saying, "Gee, I don't know that I'm up to the challenge here." But if you just tune into the fact [that] the ideas are out there if you just tap the right people and coax their creativity and ask them questions and laud their suggestions and pull more out of them, then suddenly you're in a feast of ideas.

One thing that struck me in your book when I was reading it was when you said anyone can innovate in any job, in any department, in any organization. What advice do you have for people who are just starting out, who feel like maybe they're not being heard, or feel like they don't have the opportunity to innovate?

My advice would be that when you first come on board, you want to just really take in the system, however it is construed, whatever the power structure is, whatever the processes by which we plan and execute meetings and all the other things that we deliver.

So you're going to have all these great ideas, but what you want to do is not really spread them around too much at first. The first thing that you really need to do is prove that you're a team player, that you can execute, that you can execute in a pinch, and that your loyalty is to your boss and to the system that exists. Now, I know that sounds contradictory, but it's not. It's an absolutely essential thing. You're sort of a sociologist….

But the next thing that I would recommend for young folks is that they absolutely fall in love with the members and get as much face time with members at meetings, on the phone, and really ask them a specific question.

I'm in awe of the millennial generation. They are in a very constrained, difficult environment, and I just think that it's absolutely essential that when associations are hiring these young people that they really learn to take advantage of the raw talent that is there.

So often I see that associations don't necessarily do a very good job of that. They put people in little cubbyholes and say, "You're going to be doing this. This is your execution challenge." But by just tapping their creativity, reminding them that they do have ideas, and then rewarding the ideas they come up with, you will have a more engaged employee. Behavior that gets rewarded, I always say, gets repeated.

What advice do you have for people who feel like they aren't being heard?

You have to gently and subtly and humbly remind your superiors of the value that you're adding. And if you still feel that you're not being heard, I think at some point you probably want to call a meeting with your boss and just say, "Hey, I think this should be something that we should talk about" or, "That idea that I floated, nothing really happened to that, and I guess I'm just wondering if you want my ideas or whether that's not something that you really want." I think after you have sort of established yourself as a team player and so forth, I think you have every right to be heard and to make sure that it is known that you do have ideas.

How can a manager or CEO create an engaged workplace?

Yes, you've got tremendous deliverables, tight deadlines. It's a high-pressure environment in the modern association. But if you want to have fun and create a great work environment just tell people to unleash and improve their innovation skills and give them a chance to practice them. And let them fail now and then. That would be my strong recommendation.