Ideas arguably constitute an organization’s most valuable asset. Businesses and individuals are constantly searching for fresh, new ideas – the source of innovation. While some people believe that new ideas are the preserve of brilliant minds, others, like Professor Bill Fischer, argue that people’s ability to find good innovative ideas is more about habits than intellect. As Professor Fischer suggests in his book The Idea Hunter, co-authored with Andy Boynton, it is not just about originating ideas, it is about hunting ideas that are already out there, waiting to be spotted.
If breakaway ideas come easier to those who are in the habit of looking for them,1 how can this habit be cultivated? As a starter, Professor Fischer presented the I-D-E-A (Interested, Diverse, Exercised and Agile) principle.
• I: What are you interested in learning?
• D: Who can you learn from here who can give you a fresh insight?
• E: What are you going to do differently to learn?
• A: Where, when or how are you going to learn?

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Recently one of my son's mentors was awarded the opportunity to "run" a [medical] school in a far-away location; what a great opportunity! I once had a similar opportunity and from that I reflected on a number of lessons that I think might be of value to my son's mentor, and maybe others as well. In the spirit of sharing and being candid, here are my personal reflections on my own performance"

1. After 20+ years of working diligently at a classical academic career, and playing by the rules, I gave up an endowed chair, tenure (a life-long appointment), and the familiarity of a [really, two] long-lived-in communities to move to a completely foreign environment on a temporary basis; it was the best thing that I ever did! I wholeheartedly recommend a fling with "big change" in your early 50's. My father had me, and I had this new job, at approximately the same age; both of us were rejuvenated by the disruption to our routine [at least, I like to think that my father was renewed by my arrival; I certainly was by my new responsibilities]. We are all creatures of the familiar, and change restores our need for personal growth.

2. In retrospect, I never "ran" the school, and, in fact, I hope that I never tried to. While many people spoke about "running" their organizations, if I'm honest and candid I tried my best to keep up with the changes created by the smart, energetic, young people who were constantly trying-out new things. Any "running" that I did was more like "running" after them and their boundless energy. Insisting on being an omnipresent strong leader would have only slowed them down and sapped their enthusiasm. My job, in truth, was to be the sponsor, the cheerleader, and the supporter. I'm told that people take on administrative positions in academia because they want a chance to "run" or "build" an organization. I now think that this is the wrong way to look at this. "Enable", "license", or "unleash", are probably much more suitable aspirations for leadership.

“If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” The words originated with racecar driver Mario Andretti, but the sentiment was that of a senior R&D executive at DSM, the Dutch global life- and materials-science firm. She was defending trading-off what some could interpret as a “loss of control” in favor of the pursuit of getting to the marketplace with more ideas, faster. The result has been organizational innovation with the potential to leverage the more familiar product and process innovation for which the firm has long been known for.

"Don't write the story, set the stage" read a tweet written by @asliver. What a great metaphor for what we should be doing in executive education, in particular, and "leadership" in general!

In our book, "The Idea Hunter, we speak about the power of metaphors to serve as a catalyst for the imagination, and @asilver's metaphor has resonated in my mind all morning: "don't write the story, set the stage." Nearly all of the professional situations that I find myself in, either as a professor in an executive education program, or as a consultant, are characterized by my knowing less -- about an industry, about an organization, about a technology, about a customer base, etc. -- than anyone else in the room; and it doesn't matter which room we're in! Furthermore, I need to start with the assumption that everyone in the room is smart; and my role has got to be to help them use that intelligence in a more effective fashion. How presumptuous to believe, then, that I can walk right in and write the story (or even tell the story)! This has got to be a shared affair and, incidentally, everyone else who really knows something has got to be a part of the writing crew.

All of which brings to mind Luigi Pirandello's great play "Six Characters in Search of an Author", as a "design" for what we're trying to do in executive education. Increasingly, executive education has got to be about setting the stage, and then inviting the "characters" up on the stage to co-create the story; rather than taking on the burden by myself, as the "least knowledgable" person on the room, to try to "write the story" for everyone else.

This was originally posted on February 22, 2011, on  and has been slightly revised for this posting.

Ever notice how many times an unsuccessful project team will explain their failed performance in terms of the constraints that made success “impossible”? The next time you hear this, beware! There’s good reason to believe that constraints are far from debilitating to creativity, and could, in fact, be liberating, instead. Read more