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Andy Boynton

innovation. leadership. strategy.

Idea Hunter Confidential: Steve Denning

August 30, 2011

Who wouldn’t want to learn from a leader who transformed idea and knowledge management at the World Bank? Who has written books for leaders on the importance of storytelling in transforming an organization’s knowledge culture? Who is one the most influential bloggers around? Any idea hunter, like me, would stand in line to learn from such a leader, and we are fortunate to have that person, Steve Denning, with us today for Idea Hunter Confidential. Steve’s insights and experience about the world of ideas and their importance to leaders and their firms are both intriguing and important. And when you finish reading his Confidential insights, check out his blog at Forbes each day as part of your idea hunting habits.

Boynton: In terms of advancing your goals and objectives in life 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?

Denning: I’m tempted to say all of the above, all of the time. Ideas can come from anywhere, sometimes from the oddest places. I might be having a conversation with someone at dinner, or watching a newscast, or reading a poem, listening to my daughter talk. Suddenly I see a connection to a problem or issue that I have been puzzling about. Bingo! The beginning of a new idea is born.

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?

Denning: I try to make a note of them as soon as possible, either in a notebook or in my laptop computer. Once the idea is written down, I try sleeping on it and then looking at it the next day. Sometimes it doesn’t look so great. But sometimes an idea that didn’t seem too promising looks much bigger and better than I initially thought. Letting the idea “marinade” overnight can help evolve the idea.

Boynton: Do you put them into play and show them to people?  How do you handle interesting ideas once you find them?

Denning: It depends. When I was working in an organization (the World Bank), it was vital to start discussing the idea with others and see how to shape the idea in a way that would appeal to the audience.

When I was writing my last book, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management, I assembled a review group of several hundred people to comment on draft chapters: it became a much better book as a result of those inputs.

Now that I am blogging at on a daily basis, I don’t have time to consult with others and test out ideas in advance of publication. I simply issue the blog and then observe the traffic: the level of traffic and the ensuing comments give me an instant indication of what people are interested in and hence a guide as to what idea to pursue next.

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?

Denning: Let’s take three different ideas:

  • When I was working in the World Bank in 1996, I was told to “go and look into information”. So I started looking into information and after a few weeks, I realized that the “sharing knowledge” was a much more significant idea for our future than “information”. So I pursued that idea and it quickly became a whole shift in business strategy for the organization. In effect, I ignored what I was told to do and instead pursued that I thought was important. In due course, after some tussles, the management agreed. If I had done what I was told to do, none of this would have happened.
  • As director of knowledge management at the World Bank, I found myself trying to persuade a change-resistant organization to adopt what was a strange new idea for a bank (“sharing knowledge”). I experimented with different ways of explaining it and stumbled on the power of leadership storytelling. This was such a weird idea at the time that even I didn’t accept it for almost 18 months.  I kept doing it because I could see that it worked. But I also kept thinking to myself: “This makes no sense! Storytelling? This is goofy!” But outsiders kept pressing me to explain how I was able to persuade a change-resistant organization like the World Bank to embrace this new strange idea, when other big firms were struggling. When I confessed that it might have something to do with storytelling, someone from Harvard Business School Press immediately invited me to write a book about it. So then I thought, “If HBSP thinks there’s something in this goofy idea, maybe I should check it out.” So I did and ended up writing a series of books on leadership storytelling and helping establish storytelling around the world as a key leadership competence.
  • In 2008, I started working on a new book. My initial idea was to look into why management in big organizations often seemed to kill creative ideas and programs. Why did seemingly intelligent managers do this? What could be done about it? My plan was to study high-performance teams and see whether there was a way to create and sustain them on a systematic basis. Once I had discovered how to do that, I suddenly realized that it led on to a much larger idea: how to manage entire organizations in a way that spawned continuous innovation, deep job satisfaction and customer delight. So the book was no longer just about high-performance teams. The book came to be about a radically different way to run whole organizations. Both the publisher and I were surprised to find how big the idea had become. I hadn’t set out to reinvent management, but that’s in effect what the book came to be about. Of course, I found that I was not alone in this endeavor. A number of writers had been grappling with the same set of issues. As often happens with innovation, others like Ranjay Gulati, John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Umair Haque were all converging on the same set of core ideas, although each of us had started from different places and were using slightly different language. By staying open-minded and being willing to follow the journey wherever it led, I arrived at an idea that was much bigger and more interesting than the idea that I had begun with. And I was reassured to find that I was not alone.

Boynton: When you think about your hunt for great ideas, what do you think are the keys to successful hunting? What really works well? What doesn’t?

Denning: I like Alan Kay’s thinking at Xerox PARC that the only useful leads are what he calls “extreme data points”, i.e. odd events or readings that are so far off what you expect that you can’t explain them. They make no sense. These are the kind of data points that cautious experimenters often throw away. (“Must have been something wrong with the equipment!”) According to Alan Kay, those are the only data points worth paying serious attention to, because these are the keys to major innovation, such as all the incredible inventions that came out of Xerox PARC: the PC, the mouse, the Ethernet, the laser printer, in effect, almost all of the components of the modern office.

Thus the three ideas that I mentioned earlier were all seen as very weird when I started out.

“Knowledge sharing at the World Bank?” Why would a bank do that?

“Storytelling?” Is this serious?

“A wholly different way of running organizations?” Not possible!

To arrive at really big ideas, you also have to take seriously what Ken Fisher calls in his book, The Only Three Questions That Count:
A.  What do you believe that is actually false?
B.  What can you fathom that others find unfathomable?
C.  What the heck is my brain doing to blindside me now?

I also like to keep in mind Albert Einstein’s wonderful dictum: “If at first an idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it.”