Your ability to find good new ideas is more about habits than intellect – and we think that this is a learnable skill! "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." Albert Einstein
I – Interested
Idea hunting starts with finding your gig. A gig, in the business context, could be the focal point of your personal brand, professional identity or a company’s strategic issues. The process of finding your gig starts with reflecting on your passion and talents, knowing what you are good at and then connecting it to your professional marketplace. For example, Walt Disney’s gig was to create entertainment for the whole family and the result was the legendary Disney brand. A mismatch of any of these three circles might lead to wasted time and frustration.
Once you have established your gig and determined what to hunt for, you are more likely to find ideas that are relevant and will be of value to your business. The first step is to be interested, not just interesting. People with intellectual curiosity tend to learn more and faster. And this eagerness for learning can even make up for a lack of brilliance. Learning refers to what we gain not only through a formal education but also in a much broader context, such as learning from people through the exchange of ideas. Interested people listen to other people attentively and ask relevant questions – it’s “active and engaged” listening. Episodic curiosity is not enough to turn you into a learning machine, but it does make a difference and should be cultivated so that it becomes a habit; there are big idea gains to be harvested from just a little “directed” learning every day.
Idea hunting is also about unlearning. Don’t let your mind be constrained by convention. In order to be receptive to ideas, you first have to be “turned on” to receive all kinds of ideas. As Einstein put it, “Problems cannot be solved inside the frame they were conceived in.”
The idea hunter seeks out a diverse collection of sources. Thomas Edison once said, “To get a good idea, you must first get a lot of ideas.” You need to ask yourself, “Who am I learning from?” Are you only speaking to similar people? Or do you proactively talk to people from different professional, social and demographic backgrounds? We have different circles of friends and acquaintances with whom we share our ideas more or less often. We naturally tend to speak more often to people with whom we have a strong tie, such as family and friends, than to weak-tie contacts. But if you think of your gig, maybe some of your best ideas could come from people with whom you have weak ties – people who have a completely different idea network than you. This is the way to widen your intellectual bandwidth and bridge distant worlds. This is also part of the attraction that is making social networking so popular today. Research has also shown that when groups stay together for too long without change, they tend to fall into “group thinking,” which prevents the generation of new ideas. This is one of the reasons that organizations often talk about injecting “fresh blood” into a team, such as young graduates, to rejuvenate the dynamics.
E – Exercised
Getting into the habit of hunting ideas is like exercising your idea muscles. Idea hunters use different platforms or tools to turn idea hunting into a routine. Charlie Munger, vice chairman of the investment firm Berkshire Hathaway, famously said, “I sell myself the best hour of every day,” i.e. the best hour in terms of learning, energy and so on. Location matters too. In a dynamic and diversified city such as New York or Shanghai, some people might find it easier to generate creative ideas. The world of ideas is not flat. Find where ideas are abundant and be sure to take advantage of this concentration. A fundamental habit of idea hunting is observation. You can observe the world around you at anytime and anywhere as long as your eyes are wide open. This is not to say that you should pay attention to everything, but in the scope of your gig you should be alert not only to the obvious but also to the non-obvious. Guest speaker Estelle Métayer, 2 founder and CEO of Competia, provides managers, CEOs and board members with the right tools to effectively build and hone their competitive intelligence and strategic planning to capitalize on their strengths and excel. A trend spotter and strategy consultant, Estelle shared her way of observing the world and trends through an “alien eye,” i.e. seeing the world through an entirely different lens: thinking out of the box, using inspiration from other industries, and translating learning from other environments. In short, as Apple’s motto says, “Think different.” Words such as twinsumers, ownerless, crowdsourcing and geolocalization, among others, are all applied by people who constantly observe the world around them. Twinsumers are consumers looking for the best of the best, the first of the first, the most relevant of the relevant. Increasingly, they no longer connect to “just any other consumer,” they hook up with (and listen to) their taste “twins” – fellow consumers somewhere in the world who think, react, enjoy and consume the way they do.3 Some airlines offer passengers the possibility of choosing who they sit next to according to criteria such as profession, ethics or educational background. Examples include Dutch airline KLM’s “meet and seat” service and airBaltic’s SeatBuddy, which enable customers to select their seatmates based on the Facebook and LinkedIn profiles of fellow travelers.
Ownerless consumers are people who have decided to own less. A good example of the ownerless trend can be seen in Japan, where people can rent grandparents for a certain period of time for their children if theirs are not available. The hot concept of a public bicycle renting system in many cities is another great example of ownerlessness. Crowdsourcing is a process that involves outsourcing tasks that are traditionally performed by an employee or contractor to an undefined, large group of people or community (a “crowd”), through an open call. Marketing campaigns that engage a pool of passengers in a spontaneous manner, such as T-Mobile’s Welcome Back advertisement at London’s Heathrow Airport,4 are a perfect example of crowdsourcing.
Geolocalization allows people to identify the real world geographic location of an object, for example using a GPS device or smartphone. One of the hottest new smartphone applications, it is changing people’s lives in traveling, making friends, and seeing the world. Where am I? What are the attractions in this city? Have my friends been here? What’s the best deal at any nearby restaurant? You now have the answers to all those questions simply by enabling the geolocalization function on your smartphone.
A – Agile
Because the world is not flat, when it comes to idea hunting you need to be agile enough to get into the right position to generate good ideas. Therefore, knowing the paths by which ideas flow, and the actors who shape that flow, is critical. Organizations should foster the right atmosphere for ideas to flow – for example, shaping a conversational environment that encourages idea hunting because innovation depends on the quality of conversations. When Pixar, a computer animation film studio based in California, created a large atrium in the middle of the building to facilitate the exchange of ideas, it was initially perceived as a waste of space. However, it was purposely designed to increase the likelihood of conversations, thus maximizing the chances of encountering an idea. In any network, the people who interact with others outside their immediate circles, i.e. those who stand near the “structural holes”5 – the gaps between different groups of people – and have conversations with people beyond their own spaces, are more likely to see and develop good ideas. Being agile is also about the ability to kill ideas at the right time. It is better to kill a bad idea early on than allow it to slow you down later. You need to know when unattractive ideas should be dropped. Finally, Professor Fischer shared his lessons from a fishing guide. First, find out where the fish are – more volume means more nourishment. Second, look closer before you look further. And third, pay attention to where flows mix, in order to benefit from diverse sources of ideas.