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Carroll School dean and author Andy Boynton on finding and tending the good ideas
According to Andy Boynton, dean of the Carroll School of Management, great ideas rarely spring forth from the mind of a lone, creative genius. More often, they come from individuals or teams who know how to find and implement ideas existing all around them. The search for great ideas is the theme of Boynton’s new book, The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make Them Happen (2011), co-written with Bill Fischer, a professor at the IMD business school in Switzerland, and William Bole, BCM‘s contributing writer.
On March 28, over lunch in a snug conference room in Fulton Hall, Boynton discussed The Idea Hunter with a select group of Boston College administrators, some two dozen alumni of the University’s Management Development Program, an initiative that invites middle managers to learn more about the University’s administration from senior officials. It was the third meeting at which they would plumb the book.
Boynton opened the session by showing a video, a 1999 Nightline segment about the Silicon Valley product design firm IDEO. Nightline’s producers had challenged IDEO to come up with an innovative design for a shopping cart within five days. Cameras followed IDEO’s eclectic team of MBAs, linguists, psychologists, and marketing experts as they went through a seemingly disordered, fast-paced process of tossing out ideas, consulting with specialists, and jerry-rigging prototypes.
“I look at that as the DNA for what a lot of the book is about,” said Boynton. “What are your thoughts? What did you see here?”
“At first it seemed chaotic, especially coming from academia where, at our meetings, there wouldn’t be that kind of chaos,” said Mary Ellen Fulton, associate dean for finance, research, and administration at the Lynch School of Education. “But the chaos quickly came to order.”
“Any other observations?” Boynton prodded.
“The short, intense timeframe kept the ideas flowing. It wasn’t ‘Well, we’ll talk about this over two weeks,'” observed Norah Wylie, dean for students at Boston College Law School. In the Nightline clip, the IDEO team sometimes worked nine straight hours on the shopping cart problem, in order to come up with ideas such as nested modular baskets and an on-board radio that would allow shoppers to communicate with supermarket staff. “It wasn’t an hour-long meeting here or there,” agreed Boynton. “It was ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom.”
John Feudo, associate vice president for alumni relations, commented on the composition of the design group. “If I’m asked to put a group together to design a new shopping cart,” he said, “I’m going to get a couple engineers, a couple store managers, and then a handful of moms.”
“Well, what does that say, then?” Boynton asked.
“That ideas can come from anywhere,” said Feudo.
“They do,” said Boynton. “And if you’re trying to solve a problem, what’s the most important thing? It’s knowing how to work with the ideas in a way that comes up with an interesting solution, rather than expertise on the ideas.”
After some more discussion of IDEO’s shopping cart, Boynton introduced a second clip. “Does anyone know who Doug Engelbart is?” Boynton asked, allowing the group to collectively shrug for a moment before playing the video, a black and white guide to a 1968 technology exhibition. In it, Engelbart, an early computer scientist, middle-aged and wearing a white shirt and tie, drones uncomfortably before the camera. With little evident star power, he demonstrates innovations developed in his lab at the Stanford Research Institute, including the mouse, word processing, video conferencing, and windows—in short, many of the technologies that a decade and a half later would make the personal computer revolution possible.
“Reactions?” Boynton asked.
“I was thinking it was boring,” said Laurie Simard, contract manager for procurement services.
“Right,” said Boynton. “It’s not trialable. It’s not compatible with anything. There’s no sense of being able to use [the technology] in a practical way. And so it fell flat. Xerox eventually picked it up, but no one remembers Doug Engelbart. He never made any money off these ideas.”
The lesson? “We might have great ideas,” Boynton said. “Let’s not make them boring.”
The Idea Hunter ends with exercises and a test, a self-administered diagnostic evaluation of the reader’s proficiency in the book’s principles. On this afternoon, Boynton closed the discussion by asking the group to reflect on what they’d learned, and how it could apply to their work at Boston College. Some respondents mentioned practical techniques, such as rapidly moving from idea to prototype, as demonstrated in the IDEO clip, or taking a productive hour each day to hunt for ideas.
Feudo touched on a paradox of success and the importance of fresh ideas. “After 22 years of doing this, maybe I’m feeling like all the ideas are out there already and there’s nothing more to find,” he said. “The book made me realize you have to pull outside people in and ask ‘What do you think of what we do?'”
“We know our business, and that’s a problem. We get into this cocoon of what we read, who we talk to, what we think is possible,” Boynton said. Then he leaned forward. “We’re all relatively successful at what we do. This book asks us to rethink our success formula.”
Read more by Tim Czerwienski