The idea hunter

Mar 24 2011 by Bill Fischer Print This Article

Ideas move the world. And they certainly move markets! Whether it's tablet computers, smart phones and their "apps", social networking, compression software (such as the mp3) replacing CD players, e-books nudging paper books aside, extreme skiing, rap music, boutique hotels, reality television, our interest in healthy nutrition Ė you name it - they're all about ideas.

All these new ideas are displacing old ideas. Someone gets a new idea, it catches on and the world is changed. Not as easy, of course, as it sounds; but, in truth, that's the way it works.

In many societies, the search for good ideas has taken on a new sense of urgency because their standards of living have become so grand that they can no longer compete in making things against societies with lower labor costs. So once making things is no longer viable, "knowing things" becomes the next area of competitive advantage - and that means finding and harvesting new ideas.

In these places, money is spent on R&D; new universities are established; celebrated thinkers get appointed to government panels. Yet in truth, it's all very improvised. If ideas do result, so much the better. But often the results are meager, and maybe never actually measured or appraised. In the end, resources are committed but our understanding of how to best generate new ideas is not improved.

What do we really know about where good ideas are? How do we find them? What are we to do with them once we get them? In answer to the latter, not much it turns out!

One of the most amazing things that I've learned over a career in executive education is that for the most part, individuals and organizations know very little about where the last good idea came from, or where the next one is likely to be found. How we go about generating ideas just isn't something that we spend a lot of time thinking about.

It's curious that while some of us follow the exercise regimes of sports heroes in the hopes that we might build better physical states, very few of us inquire about our own idea exercises. Have we gotten "better", "stronger" and "quicker", when it comes to "lifting" ideas in the past few months? Would we even know?

Sadly, I fear, the answer is incomprehension: we've never thought of it this way. In fact, we've never even thought about it at all! So maybe now is the time to begin.

I've always been fascinated with how some individuals are just so much more adept at finding and working with new ideas, while others haven't a clue. For a long while, I've believed that if only we could study the behaviors of idea-adept individuals we could all become a bit more effective as idea workers.

With this in mind, I've been part of a team (with Andy Boynton, Dean of the Carroll School of Business at Boston College) that has been exploring whether it's possible, in fact, to learn from successful idea workers. We think that it is, and have outlined some of their secrets in a new book entitled "The Idea Hunter". Let's begin with a few thoughts on the nature of the ideas that we are hunting.

The world is not flat when ideas are involved

There is no equality in the likelihood of finding a good idea between one location and another. Despite the popularity of Thomas Friedman's book "The World is Flat", when it comes to ideas, some "neighborhoods" are much more attractive than others.

Interested in Web 2.0? Go to Silicon Valley! If you go anywhere else, you are much less likely to find good new ideas Why? Because people with Web 2.0 ideas congregate around Silicon Valley, so, there is a higher probability that you will discover a good new idea there, than, for example, Paris, Milan, or even Shanghai.

Can't leave China, and still interested in Web 2.0? My suggestion is to go to Beijing's Zhongguancun district. There, you will be more likely to bump into someone from Beida, Tsinghua or the Chinese Academy of Sciences, or perhaps alumni of Founder, Stone or Lenovo who might be interested in your ideas or know somebody who does. You are much less likely to find that sort of information in Shanghai or Guangzhou, and certainly not in smaller cities.

Good idea hunters know this and they, like any "big-game" hunter, go where the action is in order to enjoy the best chance "hitting their targets".

Ideas don't travel alone

Similarly, idea hunters know that one good idea typically leads to several others - and that, as a result, good ideas are typically accompanied by other good ideas. This makes for better hunting. Though any one idea might not be usable, the likelihood of one coming from a larger number is almost always much more promising.

So, as two-time Nobel Laureate scientist Linus Pauling once said: "The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas."

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About The Author

Bill Fischer
Bill Fischer

Bill Fischer is Professor of Technology Management at IMD, the leading global business school based in Lausanne, Switzerland.