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Andy Boynton

innovation. leadership. strategy.

Idea Hunter Confidential: Matt May

May 16, 2011

Matthew E. May is an internationally recognized expert on change, innovation and design strategy. He is a columnist for the American Express Small Business OPEN Forum Idea Hub.

He is the author of three books, The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change (2010), In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing (2009), and The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation (2006).  May lectures each year to corporations, governments, and universities around the world, as well as coaches creative teams and senior leaders in companies of all sizes.

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

May: For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to, consumed by, even obsessed with, ideas. I’d go as far as to say I’m a meta-idea person, meaning I like to spend a lot of time thinking about the idea of ideas. I’m often accused of being “in my head.” Specifically, I’m fascinated by the design and structure of ideas. For roughly a decade, I’ve been on quest to track down and write about a special breed of ideas: elegant solutions. An elegant solution is one that achieves the maximum effect through the minimum means. I’m constantly on the prowl for elegant ideas that exhibit the unique pairing of two often contradictory qualities: extreme simplicity and surprising impact. It’s a daily regimen of three things:

  • scanning written material in various forms to share great ideas developed elsewhere with others;
  • paying close attention through keen observation to my surroundings, wherever I am and wherever I go, and recording both elegant solutions and opportunities to solve existing problems with an elegant solution; and
  • my own ideation based on thoughts driven by my observations.

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?

May: I carry a Moleskine journal, to capture thoughts and observations. It’s a habit I picked up from the Japanese when I was working with Toyota. When something gels into an actual idea, I use a little device I’ve developed and used with clients called an IdeaSheet. [Download May’s IdeaSheet] It’s the size of a journal page, 5.5 X 8.5, with four distinct but constrained components. An easy way to remember them is 4D: dub, describe, defend, draw. Come up with a sticky name, a short description, a brief explanation of why it’s important or valuable, and a drawing. I think the last part is key…the ability to sketch your concept is the first step in turning the idea into action, because it’s a first draft, low resolution prototype. The IdeaSheet is actually a short story once completed, one you can tell. Interestingly, I just read Steven Pressfield’s (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, and The War of Art) manifesto on finishing ideas, called Do The Work, and he recommends putting every idea–be it a book, a project, a business– in a 3-act framework, along with a theme. The Ideasheet does just that: Act 1 is describing it, Act 2 is defending it, Act 3 is drawing it, and the theme is the naming of it.

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?

May: When I was researching my second book, called In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, I was traveling all over the world on the speaking circuit. I used my travels to collect stories and ideas for the book. I was looking for elegant solutions, but those in which something had been subtracted or eliminated, and a greater impact resulted. I was speaking in Sweden, and I asked my sponsors if they knew of any such ideas or examples. They said, and I’ll never forget this: “You must go to Holland. They have eliminated all the traffic controls and signs at high traffic intersections,  and traffic accidents have been cut in half, and traffic flows twice as well.” I went, I saw, I wrote. It formed the basis of a chapter in my book, and remains one of the most compelling stories I tell.

Andy’s comments…

Matt May is an idea  hunter extraordinaire. Two aspects struck me as extremely valuable: his philosophy and his tools.

Philosophically, Matt’s focus on simplicity and elegance in solutions to complex issues mirrors Occam’s razor one of my favorite principles from the world of ideas.  Both Matt and Occam stress that in a world of complexity and uncertainty; it is often the simplest ideas that should garner the most attention. The power of simple ideas is multi-dimensional. It is worth paying attention to Matt’s perspectives and studying Occam. As the saying goes “it is a gift to be simple…”. That especially holds true in the world of ideas!

From philosophy to toolkit: Matt offers his valuable “IdeaSheet” concept (replete with a downloadable version).  Matt writing down, developing and “working ideas” offers very important insights. We often associate work with labor and tasks to be done. In the world where ideas are the currency, the work of idea hunters is to develop and move ideas. Matt’s IdeaSheet and notebook examples illustrate how practical and pragmatic (and valuable!) working ideas can be.

If you want to make an impact with you ideas, Matt’s “confidential” insights are of value to any idea hunter. His blog is an idea hunter’s paradise. Visit it. Use it.