The best ideas can be plucked practically from the air around us, if only we go looking for them, according to Carroll School of Management Dean Andrew Boynton, speaking to idea hunters from the association world gathered in Colorado Springs for ASAE’s 2016 Great Ideas Conference.
Where will your next great idea come from? If you’re waiting for a light bulb to come on over your head, or your muse to whisper inspiration, or a bolt of lightning to strike, good luck with that.
If you’re serious about becoming an idea generator, you first need to be an idea hunter.
“Great idea hunters purposefully increase the probability of colliding with a great idea every day,” said Andrew Boynton, dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, opening the ASAE 2016 Great Ideas Conference in Colorado Springs on Sunday.
Originality is not what innovation is all about. It’s about finding an idea and getting on with it.
Although innovation is often seen as the playground of the rare exceptional thinker or the breakthrough business, the fact is that “ideas are everywhere,” Boynton told nearly 900 attendees gathered to kick off the three-day event. He compared ideas to radio waves that can be readily picked up if only people would tune in to them.
“Innovation doesn’t happen from the lone genius sitting alone. Ideas are all around us,” he said. “What is your tuner set to find?”
The good news about innovation, as Boynton outlined it, is that it’s much more mundane and methodical than the lightning-bolt model, making it much more accessible. From Thomas Edison—the “first consummate idea hunter” who created an “invention factory” to produce a major new invention every six months—to Walt Disney, who went through his illustrators’ garbage cans at night to rescue good ideas that had literally been consigned to the trash heap, to Jeff Bezos, who embraced even wildly expensive failures like the Amazon Fire smartphone, the best idea people understand that great ideas need to be sought out and tested.
The starting point? You need vision, which creates focus, Boynton said.
“Where do you want to be in two or three years in terms of adding value for members? What stake are you going to put in the ground? From that, what do you have to do to get there? Do you need different people? Do you need different technology? Do you need a whole different way you manage space? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but by having that vision it forces you to ask the questions.”
Boynton offered a few guiding principles for successful idea hunting and organizational innovation:
Don’t worry about originality. “Originality is dramatically overrated. Originality is not what innovation is all about. It’s about finding an idea and getting on with it,” Boynton said. “Most innovations are combinations of old ideas, putting them into play to solve a problem related to your vision today.” He encouraged his audience to “borrow and steal with pride.”
Fully leverage talent. “We hire smart people, but in too many organizations we simply don’t take advantage of what they bring to the table,” Boynton said, warning about organizations’ tendency to overvalue consensus—“which in my mind is the sire of mediocrity”—at the expense of innovative ideas that not everyone may agree on. “So we hire all these great people and we dampen their energy. In any organization, we need to harness their collective IQ to generate great ideas to drive innovation.”
Commit to innovation as a process. Just as organizations have processes for managing their finances, their tech systems, and their customer or member relationships, they need a process for managing “idea flow,” Boynton said. He listed several hallmarks of a successful process:
- Clear goals and realistic constraints
- Teams with diverse skills and experiences
- Rapid prototyping
- Great conversations, which are “how ideas move between smart knowledge professionals”
In keeping with his theme, Boynton acknowledged that none of these ideas about ideas is particularly new, noting that it was Edison who first introduced the “backcasting” method of invention that starts with a vision then looks back at what’s needed to get there.
“We know how to do innovation. We know how ideas should be brought into organizations, but it’s hard to do. It’s not the way the industrial revolution has taught us to do business,” he said.
But smart businesses learn to value learning and testing and failing and trying again. The trick is to be doing it systematically and continuously.
“Idea hunting is 24-7. We experience ideas all the time,” Boyton said. “Always be hunting. Always have your tuner on.”