Andrew C. Boynton: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: August 12th, 2011 by bobmorris

Andy Boynton

Andy Boynton is Dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. At Boston College, he works with terrific faculty and staff to build a business school that creates knowledge and shapes leaders for the future. Prior to joining Boston College, Boynton was a professor of strategy and leadership at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland and on the faculty of the business schools at the University of Virginia and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Andy is passionate about how expertise  — perhaps the most important (but squandered) asset in most firms today — is deployed at all levels in organizations to help seize competitive advantage. His books and articles have frequently addressed issues of managing and leading expertise. His latest book, The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make them Happen (Jossey-Bass), is co-authored with Bill Fischer and William Bole. His previous books include Virtuoso Teams: Lessons from Teams That Changed Their Worlds (Financial Times-Prentice Hall) and Invented Here: Maximizing Your Organization’s Internal Growth and Profitability (Harvard Business School Press). 

He is a 1978 graduate of Boston College. Boynton earned his MBA and PhD at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has served on the MBA faculty at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business and at the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia. In addition to his publishing career and role as Dean of the Carroll School of Management, Boynton has over twenty years of experience speaking and designing powerful executive education sessions and seminars for firms around the world.

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Morris: Before discussing The Idea Hunter, a few general questions. First, other than a family member, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth?

Boynton: That’s a tough one. My life is very family-centric and I gravitate to the family members who all influenced me along the way. How’s this for an answer!? I’ll say– St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order in the Catholic Church. I went to Boston College as an undergrad. I’m not even Catholic, but it was love at first site. I knew it was the right place for me when I was 18 (I’m a proud alum) and now that I’m back, it still is the right place. I think many of the Jesuit ideals that spill into daily life at Boston College influenced my whole person when I was young and still do so today. Without Ignatius, there would be no Jesuit order, and without a Jesuit order, there would be no Boston College! How’s that for circuitous? But without Boston College, I wouldn’t be who I am today. So Ignatius really is the right answer, for me.

Morris: Greatest impact on your professional development?

Boynton: My friend, colleague, and co-author, Bill Fischer. Of course, this isn’t something I want anyone (much less Bill) to know about! I’m certainly not the most influential person in his life and he drives me crazy at times, but here’s the story. When I was an MBA student, there was Bill Fischer. A Ph.D. student, there was Bill Fischer. When I got to Switzerland, soon after …there was Bill Fischer. Bill’s a guy who has more energy, is more global (he lived in China with his family in the 1980’s!), more curious, and more talented than anyone I know. He loves ideas. I love ideas. We were like combustible fuel in the classroom for over 15 years together —team designing and teaching terrific executive education and workshop experiences.  What a team! That has now translated to two books we’ve written. We learned from each other all the time. At the end of executive workshops in Europe (they had no idea what we were showing!) we’d show a video of the Abbott and Costello “who’s on first?” routine in the room to everyone. The executives got it! That video was us. We just clicked in the classroom and with our idea development.  I was constantly learning, and having fun. Of course all the great ideas we had were mine!

Morris: Was there a turning-point (if not an epiphany) earlier in your life that set you on the course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Boynton: When I was earning my MBA at UNC Chapel Hill, I got to know faculty members. We ran together. I’d hang out in their offices. We had beers on Friday afternoon at the end of a long week.  I was just interested in the stuff they did. It fascinated me-the research, writing, reading, teaching.  I met several that turned the wheel on my life. One was Dick Blackburn. A terrific organizational behavior professor at UNC Chapel Hill. Here’s what happened–I was working on my dissertation. I was sort of the PhD student “all star” in some ways. Dick took my first draft of my dissertation and ripped it to shreds sitting with me at a table. I saw a year of my life go up in flames. He did it publicly to boot. The room was full of students and professors. He wasn’t malicious but he was point blank with me. No holds barred. And, he was right. It stunk. That one event taught me much about standards and what’s good, and what’s not. It was sort of an electric shock in a positive way. The other professor was Bob Zmud, information systems. We were co-authors when I was a graduate student. Bob loved working with ideas and treated me like a colleague. We had a great time thinking and writing and did some pretty innovative research together. Collaborating with Bob gave me a real jump-start to my career. He let me soar and never lorded over me. I was lucky to have mentors like that.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to your career and, more specifically, to what you do now?

Boynton: Very valuable! At Boston College and UNC Chapel Hill I learned to think! (or at least think better!). I also got exposed to a wide range of disciplines, concepts, theories, and topics; from the world of management, and the arts and sciences. And both places were rigorous. I never sailed through and it was tough sledding. Fast forward: As a dean who leads a school. As an author. As someone who consults occasionally with leading firms. On all fronts, I see threads back to my formal education. I was very lucky to land in the places like BC and UNC Chapel Hill!

Morris: Here’s a two-part question. What is DeepDive™ and what differentiates it most significantly from other methodologies that share the same objective, helping executives harness the power of teams to significantly improve problem-solving speed, innovation and results?

Boynton: It is the ultimate in flexibility and simplicity, yet deceptively so. From a dozen executives in a planning session to hundreds of managers at an offsite or conference, DeepDive works to shape breakthrough ideas and actionable results that any organization needs and it does it through focused teamwork.  DeepDive takes an important problem and first defines a “design challenge” which bounds the focus for the conversations and problem solving. The DeepDive helps organizations create solutions, prototypes fast — often in hours instead of weeks. The DeepDive is a combination of brainstorming, prototyping, testing and feedback merged into a carefully choreographed experience for managers.

With the DeepDive, a firm gets the most from the expertise and experience its talent has to offer and will derive the maximum ideas from the people — all focused like a laser beam on the specific design challenge. It just works great for a host of reasons. It can take half a day or a day. The process can be completed anywhere. No special technology is needed.

The DeepDive methodology creates a lively marketplace where the best ideas that address your business challenge will thrive while ideas of lesser value fall by the wayside. Teams will expand their ideas and solutions, and then narrow the window — resulting in a convergence of solutions and a few valuable prototypes that will shine at the end. This powerful idea solution shaping exercise will accelerate any organization towards a solution that gets it 90% of the way to its destination.

Morris: Of all that you learned during your ten-year association with International Institute for Management Development (IMD), what has proven most valuable to your leadership of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management? How so?

Boynton: Working at IMD was amazing for me! Living in Switzerland was just as amazing for my family! At IMD I learned so much from so many that it’s hard to boil it down to only one. I’ll sneak in two if I may. First, Strategy is Choice! A famous line always used by then IMD President Peter Lorange.  For institutions, choices about what initiatives to start or stop, to invest in or not invest in—those choices are key.  Implicit and explicit choices alike are key. Too many organizations don’t focus on the making the few best choices about what to be excellent in. They try to do too many things and, consequently, aren’t great at anything. I have tried to work with my colleagues on the Carroll School faculty and staff to make the few best choices for us. I think we have done that, and I think we’ve been pretty good at applying our scarce time, resources, brainpower, and working together to make those choices a reality.  IMD was very focused and Peter was very good at making choices. I’ve tried to learn from him.

And second, I also learned at IMD that being a great dean is about enabling others to succeed. My job at Boston College is to help make our faculty be stars – to help them succeed, to reach their dreams. Of course, having great faculty like we have, and IMD has, is critical. But even with great faculty, setting up the conditions in which they can excel and become even better is the job of a dean. IMD got the most out its faculty by setting up those conditions. Sometimes it’s about getting out of the faculty’s way. Not wasting their time. It involves lots of elements. On of them is keeping as much as possible simple, fast, and streamlined. But I learned at IMD that enabling faculty talent to soar is key and I’ve tried to do that at BC.

Morris: In recent years, there has been severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even at the most prestigious schools of business.  In your opinion, what is the one area in which there is the greatest need for immediate improvement? Why?

Boynton: I don’t buy into any of this talk. I think it’s misguided and isn’t addressing the real issues. People and publications make a career out of getting attention by being critical of management education, especially MBA education.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question: What do you propose?

Boynton: My passion is to work every day with my terrific colleagues at Boston College to shape both an MBA and undergraduate experience at the Carroll School of Management that is consistent with the important values of Boston College, a multi-dimensional experience that will prepare our students to be highly effective, ethical leaders in their future. I have lots of ideas about how to do that! I think trying to sit back and fix MBA education in general is a topic I don’t hunt for ideas about.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the single greatest challenge that CEOs will face? How best to prepare for that challenge?

Boynton: I think the single greatest challenge is that no one knows what will be the biggest challenge will be in 3-5 years. I think we’re inept at predications. So the future is unknown and mostly unknowable. That’s an important realization. Given that, we still need leaders to build and lead effective organizations. I think that building a firm that’s prepared for change, savors change, has adaptable and flexible talent, systems, and processes will be essential. And this form of leadership is something that is very different from what was engrained from the industrial revolution and resultant DNA that still resides all around us. For the future, we need leaders to build firms in which everyone is urged to scan the horizon and anticipate change, then have the intelligence capabilities to be well-prepared to respond effectively to whatever appears, rather than blindsided.

I also think that creating a firm that moves beyond the mass production hierarchical structure is key. Efficiently delivering products and services at scale on a global basis is difficult to do, for sure, but even then, not enough to win – unless the brand is all-powerful, one that can survive all sorts of stupid stuff because it is so durable, in fact invincible.

Most firms win today based on effectively deploying expertise; to address issues related to technologies, products, services, processes, people, and the like. Firms aren’t going to win by building more efficient systems. That’s jacks or better to open. So building a firm that leverages expertise to solve complex problems and address fast moving opportunities: where the right people can have the right conversations constantly about the right issues to make the right decision is key. Conversations are a building block for firms today. They leverage expertise by bringing it together. Conversations are what move ideas. Firms are starving for great conversations. In five years they better not be.  Bringing brainpower together better become the norm, not the exception.

For the future, then, I think CEO’s have to be leaders who are architects of great organizations, and lead the creation of firms that can make all this happen on a iterative, hence sustainable basis for three, five, perhaps even 10 years.

Morris: Over the years, I have been privileged to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with annual sales of less than $15-million. Given the relatively limited resources of such companies, what specifically can they do to improve the leadership and management skills of their people?

Boynton: Give your leaders/managers some resources and incentives and encouragement and skills – and enlist all of them to be idea hunters! Make them accountable to learn and give them the ability to do so. That’s true with big firms as well. Idea hunters are those who know how to learn every day. The best of them have an insatiable curiosity so that simply [begin italics] have to learn [end italics] every day. They know what they are passionate about. What the firm needs them for. And every day they hunt for ideas to make them better and add value to the firm. If one wants to learn how to be a better manager and leader in a given situation they literally can find the ideas, test and prototype them, and become better leaders and managers. The ideas are in the world around them-but the ideas won’t find the managers.

The firms shouldn’t have to spoon feed those ideas to managers. In many instances, the old notions of corporate training should be scrapped. Over time, Managers can — and should — become learning machines and great idea hunters. It’s exhilarating and energizing too!  And one thing is for sure, our organizations need more leaders who have more energy. Organizations are starving for energetic leaders in many cases.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Idea Hunter, a book you co-authored with Bill Fischer and William Bole. When and why did the three of you decide to collaborate on writing it?

Boynton: Bill and I had been teaching some of the material for years. Managers and leaders of all ranks loved it. We were turned on by the ideas and the potential impact and we wanted to write a book. We didn’t have much time and we wanted to write a book that was really consumable by managers and leaders of all rank and file. I think the book is relevant for homemakers also—aren’t ideas important to them? So we wanted a book that would be easy to read, motivate people, and help them become better idea hunters. Enter Bill Bole. A terrific journalist and writer. We knew we needed some expertise on the team and we invited Bill Bole to join us. He did. The three of us are quite proud of what we created together, The Idea Hunter.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from the one you originally envisioned?

Boynton: In one significant way. We were initially going to write about finding great ideas AND about how to “communicate ideas” or as we say “put them into play” within an organization. Then, a great book, Made to Stick, was written by the Chip and Dan Heath. We read it and it was head snapping. That changed our plans and we agreed, “Time to improvise!” We threw out half the book’s focus –about how to put ideas into play. We have one excellent chapter on that. But the Heath brothers wrote a masterpiece. We like to think we have the second side of the equation cornered—how to find ideas that really matter.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Idea Hunter, how does it differ significantly from other books that also examine creativity, innovation, idea generation and development, etc?

Boynton: It’s hard for me to say because I haven’t read every book, but I can say this—our book is about behavior trumping IQ. It’s not about cognitive processes. Genius is not required to be innovative and creative. Innovation is not about crazy techniques. Our book asserts that ideas are all around us. They are there to be found, if we hunt for them. And, key point, if we are vigilant…ever-alert when they appear. Not all hunters are finders.

Innovation and creativity are not about novelty!  The best ideas are those that are repurposed and recombined from existing ideas, often found in unlikely places—if one is looking for them. We argue that idea hunting is learned and improved by any professional over time. That idea hunting can be boiled down to a set of behaviors and that anyone can become an effective “idea hunter.” As a result, they’ll add more value to their company, initiatives in life, or projects because they will be armed with better ideas on how to make progress happen.

Morris: I share your high regard for Walt Disney and remain convinced that his “Nine Old Men” (i.e. Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman, and Frank Thomas) were one of the greatest creative teams ever assembled. In your opinion, what lessons about effective teamwork can be learned from these pioneer animators?

Boynton: Bill and I didn’t write about this specific team in our book, Virtuoso Teams, but we do examine other teams in science, the arts, exploration, entertainment, and business. Teams similar to Disney’s great teams. Our book and Harvard Business Review article summarize our thoughts but quickly-effective teamwork that really makes things happen requires; great talent (not just any talent!-never take ‘available’ people on your team!), a leader who listens, a leader who lets the talent fly solo and be stars. We have too much “we” in our organizations today. We hire smart people and take out the “I”. Great teams allow people to be “I’s” –stars. Disney’s team and others like it worked face-to-face, elbow to elbow, sometimes cheek-to-jowl even with Disney, often in cramped quarters. Ideas moved fast this way. It matters. These teams all were relentless prototypers. They rigorously tested ideas; kept the good ones, tossed or set aside the bad ones. They worked under time pressures. That matters-people didn’t waste time! Duke Ellington once said “Don’t give me a time allowance, give me a deadline.” It’s true! Deadlines make teams more effective. That’s also true of other constraints, including funds, because they sharpen focus with a sense of urgency. Finally, Disney’s team and the ones we studied weren’t polite. Polite teams give polite results.  Contention is positive.

Morris: Here’s a follow up question: What are some of the most valuable lessons to be learned from Walt Disney’s leadership in terms of supporting efforts to find the best ideas and make them happen?

Boynton: Two Disney stories create lessons that really stick for me. First, one of his talented artists comes in one morning and on his desk is a wrinkled up piece of paper with his art. It was something he tossed in the garbage the previous day. On the paper it said something to the effect “These are great ideas—don’t give up on them so easily. Signed-Walt”. Lesson: Disney was relentless looking for ideas from his talent—he was going through their garbage at night looking for ideas. Talk about valuing your talent and what they can do-even more so than they do themselves in this instance! The second story: Disney’s concepts for the design – the flow of people walking, the gardens, the water, the nooks and crannies – of the Magic Kingdom are amazing. We all can attest to that. Where’d he get those ideas? On a vacation with his wife and the Art Linkletters in Tivoli Garden in Copenhagen, they were on vacation.  In the back of his mind was this great new idea of a place for adults and children to have fun! Not a seedy amusement park. So he while visiting Tivoli Garden, he realizes,  “This is it!” Disney spent several days taking notes, measuring etc. He took all that back when he returned to California and Voila! The Magic Kingdom. This illustrates a key lesson: Ideas are all around us—if we only have an open mind, tune into them all the time as we go through each and every day, and keep in mind how old ideas out there can be repurposed to our own objectives and goals.

Morris: When and where does the Idea Hunt begin?

Boynton: With knowing what you are passionate about and what you are trying to achieve. We call it your gig. It’s your purpose: what you want to that’s great. It might be defined by your project. Your job. Perhaps your craft or skill. But it’s what you want to become great at. With that in mind, the Hunt begins. Your Gig is your compass, your filter, and your fuel. Without this purpose, every idea might sound great. Idea overload occurs. The Hunt is about just meandering – it’s about trying to find ideas to be great, but you have to know what you must achieve. Not all of the ideas you may find are relevant…or appropriate.

Morris: Who and what comprise a “circle of competence” and what is their relevance to the Idea Hunt?

Boynton: It says we are smart in spots and we should stay in those spots. And that idea hunting is focused and purposeful. It’s about getting ideas to help us be great at what matters — continuing to expand, extent, and deepen our circle of competence growing deeper all the time.

Morris: A separate chapter is devoted to each of four I-D-E-A Principles.  Proceeding one at a time, please explain the defining characteristics of someone who is Interested.

Boynton: Passionate Curiosity. If one is interested and curious about things that they are passionate about in the world around them, then they need to turn that switch to “On” to become a great idea hunter.

Morris: Diverse

Boynton: Idea Hunters realize that their “weak ties”  in the world around them – contacts and time with different places and people – will be the source of the new and valuable ideas. If one hangs around with the same people and in the same places, ideas and information are redundant. The” ties that bind” become the ties that blind. No new ideas are few and far between.

Morris: Exercised

Boynton: Idea Hunters are disciplined idea-workers. They spend time daily  —  either in small blocks or intermittently  —   in the systematic hunt for ideas.  Try selling to yourself some of your time for idea hunting when you are at your best; not necessarily to your company or clients.

Morris: Agile

Boynton: Idea Hunters are energetic idea-workers.  They realize ideas won’t find them, so they expend the energy to find the best ideas. They intentionally test ideas and when they fail, they capture the by-product of failure –learning, and try new ideas. They tinker with old ideas and combine them into new ideas.

Morris: Which specific skills must be mastered to create great conversations?

Boynton: One needs to balance loose and tight control over conversations with others, either one on one, or in groups. Great conversations are focused on an objective, but they give wide berth to possible solutions. Idea hunters are great listeners and realize the best ideas are “out there” in the heads of others. The conversation is the spark to tap into those ideas. Great conversations offer solutions – not to be “right”—but to test them with others, and drop what fails and keep what works. Idea hunters realize that innovation and creativity is about the flow of ideas, not the stock of knowledge. Having smart people in a room isn’t nearly enough. If the conversation is lousy, so will be the ideas. Great conversations move ideas and that’s when great ideas emerge.

Morris: Why are great conversations essential to the creative process?

Boynton: Creativity and innovation is recombinatory and that’s an important concept. By recombinatory,  I mean that creativity is really about finding and combining old ideas into new ideas. Creativity is not about novelty so the question is how to combine those old ideas into valuable new ones? Great conversations are the catalytic engine where the combining and recombining of ideas occurs. Idea flow and are connected. If the conversation is focused, and everyone knows what the problem or opportunity is, then conversations drive the idea flow and shape the solutions that emerge. If the conversation lags, idea flow sags, and creativity can be bagged.

Morris: Why is Henry David Thoreau the primary focus in the Epilogue?

Boynton: We felt we needed a good idea, but one that came out of left field for the reader to end the book.  Sort of a change of pace. Maybe not a profound reason, but this book is not based on a few pithy ideas.  It’s rich with examples and references – our ideas are based on the hard work of many others. We wanted to have different, simple, and, we hope, interesting ending so we finished with Thoreau and the ‘self assessment’ – a practical tool for readers to launch their Hunt.

Morris: Of all the idea hunters you admire most, which would you love to have in residence for a full year at the Carroll School of Management? Please explain the reasons for your selection.

Boynton: Another great question! I’ll pick one who has passed away but featured in the book. Walt Disney! He dreamed big dreams and made them a reality. Our motto at BC is “ever to excel”. Disney lived that—every idea he had and project he launched moved the distribution forward—not just achieve some incremental process. And he worked with and through others. He was inspirational. I also believe that his innate sense of what captured the imagination is essential to shaping leaders. Imagination is an under-rated asset. If leaders don’t have imagination and come up with ideas that matter, who cares if they achieve anything or not?

Morris: What unique challenges does the Idea Hunt pose that other journeys of discovery (e.g. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark) do not?

Boynton: That’s an interesting thought. I’ll sidestep the question but stay in the same ballpark if I can. Bill Fischer and I studied quite a few explorers over the years. One that influenced our thinking quite a bit was featured in our book on Virtuoso Teams. He was Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who led a team that discovered the South Pole in the early 1900’s.  Amundsen’s success as an explorer was largely based on his hunt for ideas. Over time after endless study, he simply “knew more” than the other explorers also was racing to the South Pole. And he knew more because he was an Idea Hunter his entire life.  For example, with Eskimos, he read about earlier explorers and their adventures, studying navigational charts, etc. He amassed a set of ideas regarding dog, boat, ski, route, food, clothing and the like through his own Idea Hunt. He put them into action into a terrific journey that offers great lessons to leaders, aspiring Idea Hunters and project managers in any field.

Morris: From which Idea Hunter(s) have you learned lessons that have proven most valuable to your own Idea Hunt? Please explain.

Boynton: I’ll name several and make the connection. Bill Fischer who’s infectious energy about ideas energizes me to this day. Bart Victor’s, a Professor at Vanderbilt, love of ideas and his passion for giving them serious thought taught me early on in my career that great ideas are rare, but hugely valuable. Jim Pulcrano, marketing executive at IMD in Lausanne Switzerland, knows how to make ideas come alive and has a never say die approach to learning and testing ideas to help IMD move forward. Bert Garza, my boss and colleague at BC, who has a seemingly endless fountain of ideas about how to create a great university.

I also think my work over the years with many executives and leaders at Boston College, IMD, IDEO, DNV Veritas, British Telecom, CISCO, Sun Life, Deloitte Consulting, and other terrific firms all had impact on my hunt. I realized very early on in life that there is something to learn from almost everyone – that ideas are all around us with the people we interact with — if only one tunes into them, observes and listens.

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Andy Boynton cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

http://andrewboynton.com/

http://www.bc.edu/schools/csom/faculty/bios/boynton.html

http://www.linkedin.com/search/fpsearch?fname=Andy&lname=Boynton&pplSearchOrigin=SEO_SN&trk=SEO_SN&csrfToken=guest_token&domainCountryName=

 


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