Career Development: How to Find The Best Ideas -- And Make Them Happen

by Aman Singh Das | June 01, 2011

  • My Vault

There may be endless number of gadgets available today to help professionals in perform more efficiently, more effectively and with more information at their disposal.

But for Andy Boynton, dean of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, none is as powerful as what brought each of them into being: A great idea.

At this year's annual International Corporate Citizenship Conference, Boynton explained.

His premise: To find the kind of great ideas that can change a career, a company or a community, they must become full-fledged idea hunters.

Boynton, who coauthored The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make Them Happen, with Bill Fischer, said:

"Idea hunters are learning machines. They are individuals and professionals who are great at finding ideas and they are able to be more innovative and more creative than the rest of the pack."

As knowledge professionals, he continued, we are all already idea hunters. "What you are doing is important," adding that the work of corporate citizenship professionals "is fundamental to how a business school and how universities and how companies should work in the future."

Big Ideas that Worked

Citing Henry Ford's mass production of cars as an example of an idea that drove progress and helped the company accomplish his mission of creating a car that everyone could afford, Boynton noted that the assembly line borrowed from what Ford observed when he saw carcasses being moved around a meat packing plant to remove various cuts of meat.

Looking for more examples?

  • •Declaration of Independence
  • •Microsoft's personal computer
  • •McDonald's
  • •Google
  • •UPS and FedEx
  • •Best Buy's Geek Squad
  • •One-size fits all coffee cup lids

What makes these better ideas than others?

According to Boynton, the best ideas are those that exist elsewhere and are recombined to come up with innovative and creative insights.

Becoming an Idea Hunter

The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make Them Happen

Knowledge professionals, he stressed, are more effective with better ideas than with better things or objects. But to become a great idea hunter "you've got to know your gig."

This means knowing your mission, your job beyond the job description, knowing what your life is all about professionally.

"The gig fuels your hunt for ideas," he said. "The gig is the compass which you will use to find ideas and discern which are useful and which are not."

To figure out your gig, you need to know what you are passionate about, what are your talents are, and determine if there is a market for those. Once armed with knowledge of their gig, Boynton said, there are four fundamental components to keep in mind:

I: Be more interested than interesting

Albert Einstein is a great example of a person succeeding because he was interested, according to Boynton, who quoted him once saying, "I have no special talents, other than the fact I'm passionately curious."

Boynton pointed to Walt Disney as another example of someone so interested in seeking ideas he once dug through his animators' waste baskets and came up with a discarded drawing of a character.

With encouragement from Disney, that character became the iconic Goofy.

D: Diversify

Avoid the same trails that others take.

Offering the example of Warren Buffett who has often said his investments are inspired by Ted Williams' approach to the science of hitting, the dean advised seeking a diverse set of sources for ideas.

Just as Williams focused on swinging at the pitches that gave him the greatest likelihood of getting a hit, Buffett stays within his circle of competence, focusing only on investments in companies he can understand. "Investing, baseball, what's the link?" asked Boynton. "The link was everything."

E: Exercise your idea muscles

Again, Boynton took a page out of Buffett's strategy. Noting that Buffett's investment partner, Charles Munger, "sells himself the best hour of every day to get smarter," he observed that most successful people aren't the smartest or the hardest workers. They are learning machines.

"They know how to wake up every day a little bit smarter," he said, adding, "It's about increasing the probability that you are going to collide with a great idea."

A: Hunting ideas requires agility

"It's not about originality," said Boynton offering Picasso as an example, who once said, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal."

He urged everyone to adopt his zealous commitment to prototyping, with a simple three-step process:

  1. Build
  2. Fail
  3. Learn

"What's the byproduct of prototyping?" Boynton asked. "New ideas."

The ultimate model of harvesting that byproduct, Boynton pointed out, was Edison, who pointed to a pile of garbage when asked what assets made him most successful. It was Edison's failures, he said, that were his most valuable assets because the byproduct of ideas they generated changed the world.

The West Side Story: Another Big Idea

In conclusion, Boynton offered a look into how Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim created Tony Award-winning play and Oscar-winning movie West Side Story. He explained how an idea in 1949 based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and envisioned as a story of battling Jews and Catholics on the East Side of New York, was adapted to portray the conflict between Puerto Rican gangs and white gangs after Bernstein was inspired by stories of gang conflict in Los Angeles.

That story came across as authentic because Robbins went to New York to get ideas of how gangs really interacted, Boynton stressed.

"This was not just about art," he observed. "This was about a commercial success. They were idea hunters."

"Ideas drive economic progress. Ideas drive your company's progress." And most importantly, he added, "Ideas drive personal professional progress."

--By Tim Wilson, Editor and Writer, The Carroll School of Management Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College

Filed Under: CSR

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