How to Be an Idea Hunter

By Christina Folz Jun 21, 2016
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Andy Boynton

2016 Annual Conference & Exposition
2016 Annual Conference & Exposition
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Many people think of the great innovators in history as lone geniuses who sat around contemplating problems until the ideal solution alit upon them. In reality, though, the business leaders who excel at harnessing creative ideas do just the opposite: They bring together teams of talented people, listen to what they have to say and accept that there will be numerous mistakes made along the way. That’s what it means to be what educator and author Andy Boynton calls an “idea hunter.”

Boynton led a Masters Series session instructing HR professionals on how to harness and implement great ideas on June 20 at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C. 

“You need to create an organization that frees up talent and continuously finds new ideas, and experiments, and makes innovation the driver of progress,” said Boynton, who is dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management and the author of The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make Them Happen (Jossey-Bass, 2011).

Although “innovation” has become a ubiquitous 21st century buzzword, the concept of cultivating a creative workplace long predates today’s Silicon Valley startups.

“[Thomas] Edison understood in 1890 that you have to get the right talent in the organization,” Boynton said. In fact, when Edison created his laboratory at Menlo Park, N.J.—the place where he and his team invented the lightbulb and the phonograph, among other things—he actively sought scientists who could demonstrate that they wanted to learn new things by passing a test of Edison’s own devising.

Edison also grasped that expansive spaces help to encourage innovation, an observation that has inspired many other wide-open workplaces, such as the Googleplex, the expansive corporate campus of Google, located in Mountain View, Calif. Most importantly, Edison encouraged continuous experimentation. When a journalist once asked him what his most valuable asset was, he pointed to a pile of garbage and replied, “Those are my failures.”

“He built into his invention factory an acceptance and acceleration of failure,” Boynton said.

One reason why many modern organizations struggle with innovation is because the Industrial Revolution of the 20th century created different incentives for companies. As mass production became the paradigm, organizations were built with the intent of reducing the variability of ideas—not to come up with new concepts, he said.

But in today’s labor market, most employees are what Boynton calls “knowledge professionals.” Coming up with new products and services gives organizations a competitive advantage. “Everyone here and everyone you work with makes their contributions based on the ideas in their head,” Boynton said. “None of us are doing heavy lifting.”

Here are some of Boynton’s tips for how HR professionals can be great idea hunters:

Tune in. Great ideas are all around you, you just have to be open to them—in yourself as well as in others. In the early days of animation, Walt Disney would go through the trash left behind by the artists he employed. Once when he found a sketch he thought had potential on a crumpled-up piece of paper, he left the drawing on the artist’s desk with a note: “This is a great idea. Don’t give up on it so easily.” It was an early sketch of the character Goofy.

“A lot of what we know about innovation, and how to build a culture of innovation, is not new. But it’s very hard to do,” Boynton said.

Forget originality. A pervasive myth about innovation is that good ideas should be original ones. When Phil Schiller, who runs Apple’s marketing function, was looking for a way to help users navigate the new music device the company was developing in the early 2000s, he remembered a function from his 1983 Hewlett-Packard computer called a click wheel. It was the perfect option for allowing iPod users to navigate numerous functions, while allowing the product to maintain the small size that would give it a competitive advantage.

“If you can find an idea that will work, borrow it or steal with pride as long as it’s not illegal,” Boynton said. “It’s about finding something that works and works for you. It doesn’t have to be new for society, for industry or for anything else.”

Get your hands dirty. Innovation is a contact sport, Boynton said. In other words, you need to interact with other people on your team as well as with those who will ultimately use whatever product or service you’re developing.

That’s a lesson that Doug Dietz learned when, after years of working for GE designing and developing high-tech medical imaging systems, he finally got a chance to see an MRI installed in a hospital facility. While the machine met the hospital staff’s expectations, he noticed a fearful little girl who didn’t want to go through with the test talking to her parents.

The experience led Dietz to create a colorful and playful “pirate ship MRI” designed to engage children and reduce their anxiety. As a result of the new device, the percentage of children who required sedation before undergoing the test dropped from 80 percent to 10 percent.

“No one in the world knows more about the design of MRI machines” than Dietz, Boynton said. But it took seeing his product being used to inspire a great idea.

Encourage teamwork and multiple perspectives. “In the future, everything will happen on teams [and anything that doesn’t] will be automated,” Boynton said. That’s why learning how to create diverse and effective teams is key. His challenge to HR is to create a culture that values everyone’s perspectives.

“We hire these bright young people and then we dumb them down,” he said. And in so doing, we don’t unleash their talent but diminish it, he continued.

“We have to leverage that collective IQ all the time. We have to not make people dumber; we need to make them smarter.”

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