Where do ideas come from? What is the raw material that creates the condition in the mind that ideas come from? Physically speaking, ideas are generated in an interaction of biochemicals and energy. However, when someone asks, “Where did you get that idea?” you don’t say, “Oh, that idea came from a biochemical process that completed in my brain while brushing my teeth this morning.” No, that’s not what we say. Ideas, hopefully new ones, are usually the result of our brains processing and mixing a variety of external stimuli. When asked where an idea comes from, we’re more likely to respond, “That idea came to me when I was reading an article about …” or “That occurred to me when I was talking with my son about …”
But you point out to me, “So what? We all know that.” Yes, you’re right we do. On the other hand, there are many things we know but which we do not properly leverage. We know where ideas come from, but most of us do not fully leverage the amazing ability our brains have to connect diverse ideas to form new ones. The generation of insightful and innovative ideas is one of the greatest differentiators of leadership.
Three Leaders—Three Approaches
Imagine three leaders: Bill, Ray, and Mitch. I’ll be honest with you, Bill isn’t really much of a leader. He has responsibility for a number of people and projects in his organization, but he is afraid to take risks and focuses on maintaining the status quo. He is an honest person and gets along well with everyone. That’s the main reason he has this responsibility, but he’s not much of a leader because he doesn’t generate new ideas and help his team see how things could be better.
Ray is different than Bill. Ray is genuinely interested in preparing his team for a different and better tomorrow. Ray realizes that whatever the conditions are today, they won’t stay that way and he is often connecting with other leaders in his industry to get ideas and share some of his own. Ray is a good leader and he has helped his team deal with some difficult challenges.
Then there’s Mitch. Mitch (a pseudonym for a real person) is not only interested in preparing and leading his team into a better tomorrow, but his approach to generating new ideas has enabled his team to make a real difference in people’s work and lives. Mitch does more than connect with other leaders in his industry to exchange ideas. In fact, Mitch almost makes a point of NOT networking with those folks. Then what does Mitch do? I’ll answer that shortly, but first…
A few months ago, I wrote about the Skills and Culture of Innovation as described in a book, The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators (Dyer, Gregersen, & Christensen, 2011, Harvard). One of the five skills I described there is “networking.” I said:
It is important to test your ideas with a wide variety of people and groups. Different perspectives will yield valuable insights and lead to helpful associations.
But that description doesn’t do justice to the idea of networking as a skill of innovation leaders. Networking, as described by Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen is really much more. Let’s get back to Mitch, who exemplifies networking.
Mitch is a very effective networker, and thus a good innovator and strong leader. One of the things Mitch does that Bill and Ray do not do is network with other people to learn new and surprising things, to gain new perspectives, and to test ideas currently being developed. And, very importantly, he does this with people who are very different than he is—culturally, professionally, and personally. Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen said, “The basic principle of networking…is to build a bridge into a different area of knowledge by interacting with someone whom you…typically do not interact” (p. 116). Mitch is very good at this. When Mitch bounces ideas off me, I am always surprised at the variety of sources he has consulted in formulating the new approach.
I know that few of my readers are like Bill, who is most comfortable with the status quo. Most of you are more like Ray, who really has some great ideas but they aren’t all that revolutionary. He is a good leader and is a good steward of the organization. He isn’t living up to his full potential as a leader, though—nor are most of you (and often me).
Tips for Generating Ideas
So how do we all become more like Mitch? In The Innovator’s DNA, Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen presented six tips for more effective networking, which results in more and better ideas (pp. 128-131).
- Expand the diversity of your network—Identify your current list of “sounding board” people and assess them regarding gender, age, education, profession, ethnicity, and more. How much diversity do you really have in that group? Increase the diversity.
- Start a “mealtime networking” plan—Have a meal with one person from a different background once a week.
- Plan to attend at least two conferences in the next year—One conference should be directly related to your profession and the other unrelated. Seek out people in both settings to find out what problems they are exploring and how they are seeking solutions.
- Start a creative community—Establish a small group that meets at least monthly in a creative environment to explore ideas, problems, and trends. Choose people who will challenge your thinking and generate creativity.
- Invite an outsider—Bring in an expert from another field to meet with your team for lunch once a month. Explore your current challenges and get his perspective on your problems. An alternative approach is to invite two to four people at the same time.
- Cross-train with experts—Identify experts from different functions, industries, cultures, and companies and participate in their training sessions. Exchange work roles for a time if possible.
These tips are all aimed at exposing you to a wide array of people and stimuli. The discoveries you will experience in the process will provide the raw conceptual material you need to generate new ideas and innovations. An important quality that you must develop to be an effective networker and idea generator is curiosity. Get in the habit of asking “why?” and not being satisfied with the first (or second) answer.
One of the things that sets great leaders apart is their ability to generate new ideas—to be innovative in their approach to problems of all kinds. Networking is a key skill in generating ideas.