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How to Hunt for Great Ideas

By Matt May
Andy Boynton is dean of Boston College's Carroll School of Management. Bill Fischer is a professor at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. They work with executives at companies such as Fidelity, Cisco Systems, Johnson & Johnson and Nestle to help their teams improve problem-solving speed, innovation and results. Together they have just published "The Idea Hunter." Here Boyton talks about how to develop the ability to find great ideas and bring them to market.

Q: A lot of people make the claim that ideas are a dime a dozen, and that it's execution that really matters. Why are ideas so valuable anyway?
A: First of all, they're right. Ideas -- and yes, great ideas -- are everywhere. And of course it's what you do with them that makes them valuable; that's implicit. Ideas do nothing short of driving how progress is made, in society, organizations, teams, or at home. Ideas are the heart of innovation. They are the raw material that fuels the knowledge economy. Countries that generate more ideas win. Firms that generate more ideas win. And people that find more ideas win.

Q: What is an "idea hunter" and why are they valuable?
A: An idea hunter is someone who recognizes that great ideas matter -- in their job, in their daily lives and in their communities. Idea hunters devote a significant portion of their time to finding and developing new ideas. They have a voracious appetite to learn and have mastered the daily habits and the skills necessary to discover new and valuable ideas all around them, all the time. In addition, they are skilled at putting new ideas into play so that they improve the fortunes of the organizations and teams of which they are a part.

Naturally, people who actively look for ideas in different, unique places in an effort to improve their business stand to not only reap the benefits of a better product or offering, but also a significant competitive edge over their competitors. Most often, idea hunters are not so much inspired as they are drawn, almost gravitationally, to ideas that they can apply to their own industry, profession or daily life. What they recognize is that they can accomplish more by virtue of employing better ideas than they had before. By creating new approaches to products, processes, business models and the way we work together, idea hunters fuel the future.

Q: How do you become a great idea hunter?
A: First, by realizing that your contribution to others is largely based on the ideas you have and your ability to put them into play effectively. Second, by hard work; working smarter and knowing that underlying great idea hunting are habits and a method that can be learned, improved and used each day. After all, becoming a great idea hunter is really more about behavior than brains.

Q: Can you give me an example of what you mean by "more about behavior than brains"?
A: If you want to increase the probability of getting a new idea, you should take the initiative of going to whatever "neighborhood" or source that idea is most likely to be found. The idea will not find you; you need to find the idea. We refer to this as "agility," but what it really means is being thoughtful about where ideas are and realistic about where they are not, and then moving accordingly so that you have a better chance of running into a good idea. In some cases, this might be as convenient as having lunch more often in the cafeteria, where there is a chance of having a conversation with a colleague that might otherwise not have happened; in other instances, it's deliberately making the effort to go closer to "where the action is" in order to bump into someone who could have a different idea than we are currently working with. Former Nokia CEO, Jorma Ollila, for example, would spend three months a year in Silicon Valley looking for new ideas because, in his words, "that's where the future was being born."

Q: You also say that to be a truly great idea hunter you need to fail. Can you offer an example of someone who failed a lot who went on to a find a great idea?
A: When you think of "world-class failures," two names that immediately come to mind are Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison. Both are renowned for their successes, but both are also the authors of a considerable number of failures as well. The key to their failures was that they were able to reduce the time and cost-loss associated with each failure to the point that it was really inconsequential; then they could use failing as a learning device. This is not about celebrating failure, but about making failure so insignificant that no one cares; it's about building failure into the innovation process.

Q: And the best way to do that is...?
A: By prototyping, setting up experiments, trying things out and being willing to fail. Without prototyping or running experiments, we are using judgment to hope a solution will work. Hope isn't a sound business strategy. Learning and calibrating risk through idea creation and testing is.

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This post originally appeared on OPEN Forum, an online community that provides small business owners with expert insights and connections that can help them run their businesses.