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Andy Boynton

innovation. leadership. strategy.

Idea Hunter Confidential: Howard Weinberg

May 10, 2011

Howard WeinbergHoward Weinberg is a senior partner for Deloitte Consulting in their Manhattan office. Howard is one of the lead partners in their strategy and innovation practice and he supports client consulting engagements around the world.  Howard and I have worked together for five years now on a variety of projects–some of which were terrific learning experiences for me primarily because Howard is a true learning machine and terrific person to collaborate with.  When I’m idea hunting–I invariably shoot Howard an email or give him a call. I almost always bag an invaluable idea from the excursion.

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

Weinberg: Here’s a stream of consciousness about idea hunting…

Every day I look at:  NYT, FT, WSJ, Techcrunch, Stratfor, Mashable

Every day I have conversations:  Clayton Christensen is fond of reminding us over-educated types that “you can learn from everyone”.  I try to.  Everyone I speak with knows interesting things that I don’t know but that I am interested in.  Whatever it is, I can always ask “What’s new in —–.”  “What surprised you this year in —-.”  “What hard problems are you facing in —-.” Or sometimes I can ask something more pointed where I have some dots that I want to connect.  Eg, “Why doesn’t big data and supercomputing seem to be changing macroeconomics the way it’s changing other social sciences?”

Every day I Google about ideas that I have come across.  I look at TED talks, interviews (eg, Lee Kwan Yu and Charlie Rose was great) but usually on airplanes where I have more slack time.

Periodically (not daily but frequently) I look at periodicals including the Economist, Science, New Scientist, the New Yorker, London Review of Books, Ad Age, Fiscal Times and some random other things using Pulse on my iPad.  I skim HBR, SMR, Strategy + Business et al.  I skim other sources using Pulse.

Periodically (less frequently) I look at some people’s blogs,  I don’t read too many with any regularity.

I look for interesting titles to read, things that are thought of as seminal works, and that probably contain stimulating ideas.  Eg, The Search for Security:  A US Grand Strategy for the 21st Century.  Or The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory.  People like you know that I like this sort of discovery, so you recommend and send me books.  (Thanks for Human Centered Design!)   When I find an interesting author, I look for the author’s other publications.  I look for co-authors.

I go to museums, films, art galleries, opera, dance, and music.  I study the work of architects and designers.  And I do it in different countries.  Artists and designers are trying to find new ideas to solve problems in their domain.  I don’t have the Nathan Myhrvold-like view of food, but I can understand finding ideas in that domain, too.

About once a month I go to a meeting/conference looking for ideas:  I rarely attend large conferences unless they are directly relevant to something I am up to at the moment.   Eg, I went to the Cleveland Clinic conference on innovation in medicine a couple of years ago when doing a lot of innovation in healthcare.  (Here I exclude conferences at which I speak, which is usually a marketing activity, more than an idea-finding activity.)  Conferences usually don’t provide enough ideas/day for the days that they take up.

Networking opportunities are also too few per day.  Smaller, shorter, more exclusive or focused conferences are more appealing, but there aren’t that many of high quality.  The economics are too tough.  I do go to short sessions at, for example, the Council on Foreign Relations – future of the World Health Organization (does it have one), and at Columbia (one a few months ago on women and leadership roles had some fascinating research about women in village government in India by Esther Duflo, the star sociologist at MIT.)  And I attend the BC Carroll School CEO luncheons in Boston whenever I can.  I attend some conferences remotely on the web.

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?

Weinberg: I try to put them in play a soon as I can by emailing someone about the idea.  I put them into my social knowledge network, which is part of my imperfect storage system.

To put it into my social network I need to find an immediate (first prototype) application – or at least some idea of how the idea might make a difference.

This serves 3 purposes:  it forces me to think about the idea in a practical way, it starts a conversation (see above) to get feedback, it ensures that I don’t forget the idea right away.

I have a paper notebook that I use less and less.  I also store articles, work products, etc. in folders on my computer with a full-text search engine (x1) so that I can find things.  But I don’t have a systematic approach to reviewing and sorting ideas.

I use a dialectical approach to find more ideas.  I look for the antithesis with the ideas as the thesis.  Or I look for a thesis and antithesis with the idea as the synthesis.  When I started thinking and finding ideas about corporate governance, shareholder value theory (thesis) led me to stakeholder theory (antithesis).  No synthesis yet.  😎  Another one is the Resource Based View vs a Knowledge Based view.  That led me to knowledge in social networks, Structural Holes (thank you, Andy), and Bruce Kogut’s work.

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?

Weinberg: DeepDive™ led to combining executive education and design practices with management consulting practices to an idea that Michael Raynor and I believe could disrupt management consulting.  DeepDive™ and Disruptive Innovation are ideas from people I work with.

I combined the findings from the PIMS data with the concept of a multi-layer engineering architecture (eg, the internet, the switched telephone system) to create a “Marketing Communications Architecture” to align the marketing activity and spend for a computer industry client.

DeepDive™ and Idea Hunter, the television shows:  collaborated with you to combine your ideas with Tracy’s Style Safari approach to interesting (not just entertaining) reality TV.

Artificial Intelligence solution to increase the quality of automated chemical analysis.  I used ideas about mechanical translation to create a language that described the reasoning and actions of expert machine operators.  Then added a learning approach.  The result outperformed the best operators.

Strategic Planning Approach for a European National Bank by applying Michael Raynor’s Strategic Flexibility ideas and to the public policy uncertainties of economic efficiency vs economic equity.

ANDY’s comments…

Two things strike me about Howard’s Hunt. The first is his quote: “Every day I have conversations:  Clayton Christensen is fond of reminding us over-educated types that “you can learn from everyone”.  I try to.”. A great quote and Clay Christensen is one smart idea hunter we can all learn from. I want to focus on the word “conversation” — they are key for idea transmission. And if you want to influence someone with your ideas, start a great conversation. In our book, The Idea Hunter, Bill Fischer and I have a chapter on “conversations” and we feature Howard in it describing a case study where he was the maestro of a high powered five minute conversation with a client.  So, take conversation away if nothing else. They are vital to the learning process.

I could go on and on about important aspects of Howard’s hunting behavior–but look at his sources–what he reads in the paper press, where he hunts online, where he visits  in NYC and beyond. No wonder he’s a great idea hunter. He has a particularly large, rich, and varied world of ideas from which he draws from. Howards never acts like the smartest guy in the room, but he almost always is. Learn from his hunt. I know I will.