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Andy Boynton

innovation. leadership. strategy.

Idea Hunter Confidential: Adam Brasel

April 28, 2011

Adam Brasel, Associate Professor at Carroll School of ManagementAdam Brasel is an idea-dynamo. He’s one of the world’s leaders at studying and writing about how multi-media effects marketing issues like consumer perceptions and consumption. He’s a colleague of mine at the Carroll School of Management where he is an Associate Professor in our terrific marketing department. Adam just earned tenure at Boston College (that’s a big deal for him and us!). He has articles in the Economist and his research is mentioned in other leading newspapers and magazines. I don’t know many people better at working with ideas than Adam, and from his interview, I think you’ll see why. Thank you Adam.

Boynton: In terms of advancing your goals and objectives in life, where do you search for great ideas (websites, people, conferences, mags, etc.)?  And can you describe how frequently you hunt in those places?

Brasel: In my research, I’m trying to build a better picture of what modern media usage really looks like. I’m passionate about the topic, personally curious about changing media perception and consumption patterns, and feel there are huge contributions to be made in the area.  I’d say my best ideas tend to come from a combination of online information aggregation with casual conversation.

For websites, I have a selection of technology, media theory, and psychology news and opinion blogs I’ve aggregated into an RSS reader.  I only review the reader twice per day; when I first start working and before dinner. Interesting articles I “star” and save for later, then I re-read them at the beginning or end of the week. I tend to update the list of sites that are part of the RSS reader two or three times a year: often a particular blog or news source starts out at the cutting edge of an area, but slowly works backwards into becoming a follower and repeater of other people’s stories and posts.

For people, most of my ideas have come from face to face discussions rather than virtual interactions.  I think it’s important to have regular meetings (that aren’t strictly work-related) with people who inspire you to have good ideas.  I don’t think you get the spark of a great idea from any single piece of information, but rather a great idea comes from seeing a potential connection between two pieces of information nobody has linked together yet, or suddenly seeing a “hole” in the collective knowledge that all of these information sources have been dancing around without realizing it.  Information definitely provides the substrate in which ideas can grow; but conversation gives it the spark of life.

Boynton: When you find great ideas, be they from a conversation or something you scan, what do you do with them? Do you store them? How? Do you put them into play and show them to people?  How do you handle interesting ideas once you find them?

Brasel: Most of my basic ideas come in the form of questions.“What do people actually see when they fast forward using Tivo?” “How do we really split our attention between the computer and the television when we’re using both at the same time?”  Once I’ve had an interesting question get lodged in my mind, and it survives a few conversations with co-authors, colleagues, or friends, I create a two-page “Thoughtsheet” on the topic that has four sections:

  • What’s the key question or idea this project will look to address? Can I break down this meta-question into 2-5 sub-questions?
  • Are there a few key papers that already offer some insight in this area? If so, how does this work move beyond them from a theoretical, managerial, or academic perspective?
  • What might the study method and design look like? What would the results need to look like to answer the questions I want answered?
  • What do we currently not know about the question/idea/project? What issues and questions do we need to find the answer to before we embark on the project?

The Thoughtsheets also help to avoid “feature-creep” in my research as the ideas expand into full research projects and help to make sure my research projects stay focused on the core interesting questions.  We need to make absolutely sure that the study is perfectly targeted and directly addressing the core issues we want to explore. If we screw that up, it will take forever to “course-correct” the research!

Boynton: Can you think of a few big ideas you’ve found hunting and what they led to? How’d you find those big ideas? How’d you take them and turn them into something important to you?

Brasel: With the Media Perception Lab that I run with Prof. Gips, we tend to look at media from a very visual, perception-based lens. A few years back I began to see stories about “media multitasking,” how people were increasingly consuming multiple media at the same time, such as surfing the Internet while watching TV. A few months later, some research reports began to appear showing that media multitasking was growing by double-digit percentages per year, and was rapidly becoming the modal form of media consumption for people under 30. Talking with friends I heard many lay theories as to how we go about media multitasking, from “I watch TV during the show and look at the computer during commercial breaks” to “I focus on the computer and use audio cues to tell me when to look up at the TV.” At the same time, I had been reading psychology papers on the primacy of the nonconscious mind, and just how little conscious insight we have into our everyday behavior. So I thought, “hey, has anyone actually explored how people actually split their attention across those two screens, and are people even aware of what they are doing?”

Seems like an obvious enough question, right? But as I talked about it with my co-author, the idea just wouldn’t go away and loomed larger and larger in our minds. And as we explored it more, we found out that nobody else had explored this issue from a vision or perception-based lens; everyone was using survey measures and self-reports to explore media multitasking and exploring the implications of media multitasking rather than the act of media multitasking itself. Especially given the growing body of work on nonconscious consumer behavior, we had a sense that these lay theories people were having about what they were doing might not have anything to do at all with what they were really doing. And if we could provide some ground-level insight and exploration into what people were actually doing, it could be useful for consumers, for marketers, and for academics to build future work on.

At that point, we figured out we had a “perfect storm” of an idea. Media multitasking was an area experiencing a groundswell of attention in the popular and scientific press, we were uniquely positioned to use a visual and perception-based “lens” to explore the issue that others had yet to use or we were uniquely positioned to deploy, and that our findings had the opportunity to provide huge insight in a way that a lot of other research paradigms couldn’t. So we moved around some projects, and began a multi-study exploration of media multitasking that’s yielded one paper so far and a second paper in the works.

But as to how I make the ideas into something important to me, it harkens back to the double-edged sword of researching an area you find personally fascinating. It can be tough to separate out the great ideas, but once you have one, the idea itself and the ability to explore it or answer it should become self-motivating. If you’re not motivated by your great ideas to explore them to their conclusion, and don’t find the answers to those ideas important and satisfying in their own right, you’re exploring the wrong thing.

Boynton: Thanks, Adam! Wow! This is a treasure chest of terrific perspective to idea hunting. Don’t fool yourself Idea Hunters. Adam may be a great scholar, but that also means that, like you, he is a knowledge professional that contributes to others with the ideas in his head. He has some great tips for all of us to consider. My quick takeaways—and this is just the tip of the iceberg…

  • Adam really knows his gig and it’s much more than being a terrific professor (which he is–researcher and teacher!). Getting a handle on one’s gig intellectually and emotionally is a huge help to becoming a great idea hunter. (Notice how he knows he has to filter ideas—and strives to do so—the Gig really helps him.)
  • RSS feeder: two purposes, stars articles, reviews the results twice a day. This is all new to me but I’m looking into it asap. Sounds like a great idea hunting tool for anyone.
  • Adam’s “Thoughtsheet” concept is practical and thoughtful; sounds indispensable for him, and I think can be applied to any idea hunter’s project or initiative. This is a great idea.
  • The importance of “conversations” as idea hunting tools are emphasized by Adam and I agree. In the book, we have a chapter on the importance of great conversations. Adam offers some useful and interesting insights on why and how to create great conversations.

Adam told me he found that thinking through and answering these questions was very useful.  Maybe this would be true for you?

What did you learn?