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How can I be innovative at work when I'm so busy?

Innovative thinking begins with clear sense of purpose



I know that my company values innovation, but between meetings, conference calls and my increasing workload, I don't have a spare minute to think of innovative ideas. How can I bring valuable ideas and solutions to the table while juggling all of my other responsibilities?


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You need to keep two things in mind. First, the push for innovative ideas is no longer optional; it's a matter of professional and organizational life and death. Secondly, everyone can set aside time for what we call the "idea hunt," and much of this work doesn't require any new time at all.

Know your gig

Many managers spend too much time going after ideas and information of little value to them. When this happens, it's basically because they don't have a clear notion of what they're looking for. What all professionals need is a general filter that translates the world surrounding them into ideas that matter.

That filter is "your gig." It's a constant awareness of what you're all about as a professional and where you want to be going in your career and projects. Without a general sense of purpose and goals, you won't know what ideas you're hunting for, and you'll be defenceless against the demons of information overload.

Make the best hour of the day your own

Here we borrow a page from Charlie Munger, who is Warren Buffett's business partner, and a wise man. He recalls that as a busy young lawyer, he made it a practice to take otherwise billable time at the peak of his day, and dedicate it to his own thinking and learning, his search for high-value ideas. "And only after improving my mind – only after I'd used my best hour improving myself –would I sell my time to my professional clients," he said at a shareholders meeting a few years ago.

Most professionals would be able to run with some version of this idea. Some companies have begun to institutionalize the idea: Google employees, for example, are allotted one day a week to pursue innovative ideas of their own. With or without a formal company policy, everyone can search out ideas. It could be a matter of what you do with the half-hour before you get going in the morning or during lunch. Do you check in on blogs, scan newspapers, jot down some wild ideas?

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Always be on the hunt for ideas

Another avenue is to spend your work hours more deliberately – with an eye toward ideas and knowledge. What kinds of questions are you asking at meetings? Are you simply trying to showcase what you know, or aiming to find out what other people know? What sorts of conversations are you striking up in the hallways? Are you sending the right signals to idea-bearers (who could be anyone, any time), making it clear you're interested? What are you noticing when you visit a client or come in contact with a customer? How will your work on the project today add to what you know, not just what you do? All of these questions point to the need for good habits of the hunt.

Don't go it alone

No one can squirrel away all the necessary notions. Other people have to be a vital part of your plan for getting and developing ideas, the kind that can boost careers and change organizations.

This begins with taking an active interest in the work of others, rather than being narrowly concerned with your own work. It means sharing your thoughts with colleagues rather than keeping ideas under wraps. This is one way of testing your ideas with people. It also means encouraging ideas among employees and others, not quashing them.

One of the most reliable ways of coming up with ideas is to make sure the people around you are coming up with ideas. Lots of them.

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Andy Boynton, dean of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, and Bill Fischer, a professor at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland, are authors along with journalist William Bole of The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make Them Happen

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