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How to Lead During COVID-19 and Beyond

Unleash the Leader Within: How to Lead During COVID-19 and Beyond

Robert Tucker
Robert Tucker

Robert Tucker is a keynote future trends speaker, with an endless list of clients he’s helped in his 30+ years consulting with companies of all sizes in over 50 countries.

A globally-recognized leader in innovation, Robert graciously spent some time with us. He talked about how COVID-19 is causing manufacturing to reassess assumptions of the past; the perils of falling victim to the routine; and the need for leaders, now more than ever.

Describe how you help companies become more innovative.

Robert Tucker: My work involves helping organizations and individuals shape the future by improving their foresight and innovation capabilities. I look at innovation as an organizational discipline – not something a few people in the Innovation Department do, but all of us. 

I look at innovation as an organizational discipline.

This was a radical notion when I first advanced it 15 years ago. And with the pace at which disruption happens today, it is essential that we innovate not just top-down but bottom-up and outside-in as well. People on the front lines need to know that their ideas count, that they’re being listened to. 

With COVID-19, that’s what is needed even more than ever coupled with a vision of how you want to be positioned when the future arrives.

Forward-looking leaders don’t let crises this big go to waste. They launch “plan ahead teams” to meet regularly and ask: what are we seeing, what are we missing, what assumptions need assaulting, and what does it say about the plan? 

The tendency is to hunker down and wait for other firms to point the way and then play a good game of catch-up. My premise for 30 years has been that leaders and organizations will rise or fall based on their ability to anticipate and creatively respond to rapid change.

Describe what you’re seeing in the current marketplace in regards to innovation, especially in the midst of COVID-19?

Robert Tucker: During past downturns, innovation and R & D spending took a hit, and that’s what is happening with this global pandemic. But COVID-19 is different. It’s a sea of change for the manufacturing sector where old remedies are not plug and play this time. 

Old remedies aren't plug and play with COVID-19.

Assumptions that were not questioned before are suddenly up for review: 

  • Just-in-time inventory and lean manufacturing methods have proven their limitations if your supply chain is suddenly cut off, as has happened with COVID-19. 
  • Single-source suppliers, single-country suppliers (especially if China), and many more are up for review, as boards of directors are asking tough questions. Apple making all of its iPhones in China seemed safe and sound at the time. Now it seems short-sighted.
  • Just-in-time delivery seemed like a brilliant way to lower costs yesterday, now it seems unnecessarily risky. Especially with supplies like masks, protective equipment, and rare earth minerals that China controls the vast majority of are essential in manufacturing certain products.

The post-pandemic era will involve letting go of old ways of doing business and thinking about the new realities.


You write in your books on innovation and strategic foresight that innovation is more than just new products or services or business models. How has your definition of innovation changed or has it changed over time?

Robert Tucker: Innovation will always be about coming up with new ideas and solutions and bringing them to life. It will always be about creating new customer value that in turn creates additional revenue for the originator of that innovation. 

I segment innovation into three distinct types, or categories: product, process, and strategy, which includes new ideas in how you go to market, how you add value around your product and your channel of distribution, and how you increase loyalty.

Shorter term, as we feel our way to a new normal, innovation will be needed:

  • Revising processes
  • Rebuilding trust with customers
  • Adjusting to a world that is vastly changed

You are a futurist, but didn’t futurists and other prognosticators miss this pandemic just like everybody else?

Robert Tucker: Admittedly, pandemics were not even on my list of 20 Driving Forces of Change that will dominate the 2020s – things like artificial intelligence, Big Data Analytics, 4th Industrial Revolution, and even the China-US decoupling.

People think that futurists have crystal balls and we can predict what’s going to happen – we can’t. Yet if you dive down into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak, all the signs of an impending global health crisis were there. 

All the signs of an impending global health crisis were there.

Bill Gates warned five years ago in a TED talk that the biggest potential killer the world faced wasn’t war, but a pandemic.

You wrote Innovation is Everybody’s Business for the rest of us who need to innovate. Why do we all need to make innovation our business?

Robert Tucker: Simply because of the pace of change and opportunity today. With software and automation taking up the routine parts of our work, what we’ll increasingly need are what I call innovation skills, iSkills for short. 

Entrepreneurs exercise and develop these skills every day. But folks in large organizations can get lulled into being implementers, doers of routine tasks day in and day out. Most of us focus on our functional skills, our technical skills, and even our people and managerial skills. But iSkills are close kin to so-called soft skills, and in the book we focus on seven of them.

Folks in large orgs can get lulled into being implementers.

At the individual level, innovation takes place as a result of 3 ingredients: mindset, skillset and toolset.

  • Mindset is about being alert to change, it’s about your information diet, it’s about being responsive to change.
  • Skillset involves things like “can you sell others on your ideas,” and do you have a sense of what needs to be done next and can you develop an action plan of execution.
  • Toolset is everything from knowing how to bring people together to brainstorm and come up with solutions – and take the risks necessary to actualize new ideas.

Describe your approach to Managing the Future. 

Robert Tucker: It’s a process in which you expand your horizons to opportunities and the threats that are potentially ahead of you. Too many people in corporate life get sucked into a routine.  

Well, routine jobs are being automated. What’s left are your innovation skills. 

Your innovation skills is what's left.

My Managing the Future offsites are not a replacement of your planning processes, but they do focus on external trends, possible threats and opportunities that might not be on your radar, and on ideation for opportunity discovery.

In these sessions you’re going to find your mind stimulated by possibilities you weren’t even thinking about when you walked into that environment. I’m going to be a can opener to your mind; I’m going to tap that part of your mental makeup that’s about reaching for your greatness. 

I’m going to activate your endorphins of potentiality and get you out of your day-to-day routines and thinking ruts.

What can we learn from COVID-19 in terms of what you call Managing the Future?

Robert Tucker: CEOs and other leaders can learn from the botched response to COVID-19, in the United States, which has suffered more deaths than any other country including China, where the outbreak originated.

We can learn what not to do as leaders in our organizations.

We can learn what not to do as leaders in our organizations: don’t encourage denial or wishful thinking in the face of a threat (“Maybe this will just go away if we downplay it”). It’s not helpful to punish people who bring you bad news; don’t try to blame others for your lapse; don’t cut budgets for pandemic security research; don’t ignore reports that warned specifically of the devastation a pandemic could wreak on the economy.

The citizens of the United States pay billions for defense from military attack and we pay 10,600 researchers at the Centers for Disease Control an average pay of $288,000 a year to keep us safe from diseases. But that’s not what happened and the question is why?

On the opportunity side, the value of futurists is that we help leaders “play with the clay,” look at implications of future trends, look out and think ahead of the curve and be catalysts for acting ahead of the curve.

In my own practice, I help top teams and innovation teams look at their cultures from the standpoint of whether it’s safe to speak up, safe to float wacky ideas, safe to challenge conventional thinking, to push back on the way we do things around here. 

How do we Unleash Leadership?

Robert Tucker: It all starts with self-leadership. We need to ask ourselves a series of questions.  Are we curious? Do we pay attention? It’s really a mindset — you send out vibes to your company if you are pro-innovation.  

Take 3M, for example. They realized that innovation was going to be part of their culture, and so they made it a goal: 30% of their revenue would come from products that did not exist 5 years ago.

You have to determine your rules for innovation. People will focus on the things in their job description, so you have to determine what you will incentivize. There’s an old saying: What gets rewarded, gets repeated.

If you have a million things on your to-do list, and innovation isn’t incentivized, it will get pushed to the bottom of the list.

Look, we know there are a lot of shortages these days – PPE – personal protective equipment would be one example – but the biggest shortage is leadership. There are a lot of big issues facing us: social issues, environmental issues, technological issues.

It’s an exciting time to be alive, and a daunting time. And we’re going to find out who among us are the pioneers and the leaders, and who are not.

Learn more about Robert and his company, Innovation Resource Consulting Group.


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