Where Great Ideas Come From
Tapping the world outside your company for the ideas that will keep you smart.
By Leslie Brokaw | Jan 1, 1993
The great idea that launches a business needs to be the first in a series. Here's a menu of proven methods
for gathering information and tapping the world outside your company for the ideas that will keep you
Early last year the
FaxPoll asked readers, "Are you too busy to be smart?" Between managing people,
selling products, negotiating deals, and handling surprises, do you have time to read, to talk, to sit and just think?
Where, for that matter, did your last great idea come from? Customers? Magazines? (We flatter ourselves.)
Simply popped into your head?
What we figured, and what we heard back, was that although daydreaming and intelligence gathering put people
in business, there's little time for such things after ventures get fully under way. "So much new technology, so
little time to learn," lamented one founder. "I wish I could read faster," wrote another. One chief executive noted
that whereas he used to spend the majority of his time thinking about how to improve his products and be
different from his competitors, he now was consumed by keeping up on and complying with changing
The answer for most was, Yes, I
too busy to be smart.
But other CEOs said they recognize that managing a company in today's environment means more than getting
today's work done well: it also means anticipating tomorrow's. "You must set some time aside for brainstorming
and research, otherwise you die" is how one founder somewhat histrionically put it. Searching for ideas, they
contend, is not a luxury. Those CEOs have figured out ways to stimulate their thoughts without becoming
deafened by the cacophony of the outside world. They've learned how to make the time, how to filter what they
hear, and how to transport ideas back into their organizations.
Many of their strategies for finding wisdom outside their own office walls aren't complicated. Most involve little
more than talking, albeit with the right people and in the right places. A few take more work to establish and to
nurture. All, happily, can be copied.
* * *
Get into a Peer Group
Company managers need two kinds of ideas: big-picture ideas (What new technology is out there that I could use
but haven't thought about?) and specific problem-solving ideas for day-to-day operational quandaries (How do I
set up a benefits plan?). Peer groups prompt both. Running the gamut from formal associations to informal
clusters put together by CEOs in the same region or industry, peer groups -- small discussion groups held
regularly among the same people -- are providing increasing numbers of managers the chance to share and hear
everything from tactics in hiring to options for solving company crises.
In the Boston area a group of about a dozen software-company founders in noncompeting niches has been