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Are You Indispensable At Work?

Master innovation skills to take charge of your career

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

In reality, you are 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 to make you difficult to replace. And your years of experience on the job may not have the cachet they once did either.

The good news is you can take charge of your career. Based on research and interviews with 43 standout employees who peers, bosses and colleagues identified as indispensable, I believe the only way to become more valuable to your organization—and have incredible job satisfaction in the process—is to focus on mastering a new set of strategic skills.

Help Wanted: I-Skills Required
To help you succeed, you need to build and unleash a new set of skills in your work and in your life: Innovation Skills, or I-Skills for short. While organizations around the world are shedding jobs, they are suddenly desperately in need of professionals with the abilities and skills to deliver unconventional results: to slash costs without sacrificing service, to add unique value that keeps current customers loyal and helps close new business.

Innovation is about more than inventing new products and services. Today, it’s about figuring out how to add value where you are. 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.

Here are the seven fundamental I-Skills employees must master to make themselves indispensable in today’s hyper-competitive world.

#1. Embracing 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 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. 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? What are 10 things that are working well in my department right now?

#2. Assaulting Assumptions
Ever overheard yourself utter the words, “There’s got to be a better way”? If so, you challenged the belief that the status quo is the best or the only way, and you invited new thinking. Innovators 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 freely asking such questions as “What would an entirely different way of handling this situation look like?” Experience can infect us with biases that blind us to new possibilities. Press your reset button, both on a mental and emotional level, and start the questions flowing. And remember: innovation begins where assumptions end.

#3. Passion for the End-User
Steve Jobs designs products that rock people’s world. How? By getting vast teams of specialists to collaborate and understand that second-best efforts will be unacceptable. He’s not going to settle for anything less than awesome. 

You also create products for a living. That event you’re planning for Orlando is a product. The new cost-reduction initiative you’re contributing 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, iPhone and 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 that customer wants to accomplish. Step outside the bubble of your culture, interact with enough people and 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. Thinking 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 if you walk straight into something you couldn’t see. In today’s marketplace, 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. By developing the ability to track emerging trends and assess and interpret the changes as they relate to your world, you are positioned to transform them into new opportunities and strategize advantage for yourself, your organization and your career.

#5. Continuously Fortifying Your “Idea Factory”
Everybody has ideas, but only a few know how to keep their “idea factories” fortified 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 brainstorm ideas. Or, find your inspiration outside the office.
  • Know when to unitask. 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.
  • Practice at creativity. It’s not a gift from the gods, but the result of preparation, routine and discipline.
  • Get in the habit of downloading ideas. If you don’t capture them the minute they strike, you’re unlikely to act on them later. The mind is terrific for coming up with ideas but a terrible storage device.

#6. Collaboration
If you’re 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 intellectual effort.” Collaborative teams are how big projects actually get done.

#7. 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.

Be persistent. 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, individuals took suitcases of the little stocky pads and handed them out to passers-by in the city of Richmond, Virginia. 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.

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Robert Tucker Meet the Author
Robert B. Tucker is president of The Innovation Resource Consulting Group, located in Santa Barbara, California, and on the Web at http://www.innovationresource.com/.His latest book is titled Innovation Is Everybody’s Business.

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