Time to Get Back to Idea Hunting

by Mark Greenlaw | Executive Director, EXPLO Elevate

For the past months, school leaders have been intensely focused on opening their schools in a safe and healthy manner, dealing with a broad range of health, logistical, personnel, and financial issues brought about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While each day brings uncertainty and potential changes to protocols and practices, some schools are starting to get into the rhythm of running school during a pandemic. At EXPLO Elevate, we are seeing evidence of this, as several school leaders have recently reached out to discuss plans and initiatives for the 2021-22 school year and beyond.

This is a good sign. These school leaders appear to be demonstrating a high Antifragility Quotient (AFQ), which my colleagues Ross Peters and Sudipti Kumar wrote about in a recent blog post. Leaders with a high AFQ go beyond being resilient when faced with adversity — they actually bounce back stronger than before. In addition to resilience, they demonstrate curiosity, flexibility, the ability to trust, creativity, reflectiveness, and a renewed commitment to their school’s mission, values, and strategy.

Leaders with a high AFQ go beyond being resilient when faced with adversity — they actually bounce back stronger than before.

These school leaders are starting to look forward again. And they need to be looking forward. Allow me to draw on an analogy from the world of cycling. I’m an avid mountain-biker, and one of the keys to going fast (without crashing!) on the trails is to be looking as far ahead as possible. You look at where you want to go, not to where you don’t want to go. If you fix your eyes on the rock or tree in front of you, chances are you are going to hit it. But if you stay focused on what’s far ahead, your peripheral vision will naturally let you avoid the mishap. And you go faster, and avoid crashing and going OTB (over the bars).

The same is true with leading a school. School leaders must be looking far down the trail, and not fixing their gaze on the smaller obstacles in front of them. Now, if the trail is entirely blocked by a downed tree as a result of a big storm, you may have no choice but to stop, get off the bike, and deal with the obstacle. But then you get back on and return your focus down the trail. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of those potential obstacles as you reopen — someone needs to be focused on them, which is where a distributed leadership model is critical. Everyone can’t be focused on the near term obstacles, otherwise nobody is focused on the future.

School leaders must be looking far down the trail, and not fixing their gaze on the smaller obstacles in front of them.

As we navigate our way through the pandemic, schools must continue to innovate. Innovation happens at the organizational level, and at an individual level. At the organization level, we talk a lot about schools creating a culture where they are both willing and able to innovate. This is known as “Collective Genius”, which we write about in our Fueling and Innovative Culture report, featuring founding member Belmont Day School and the work of Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill in her book Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation

At the individual level, leaders need to condition themselves to be looking to the next big idea — to be Idea Hunters. Our notion of being an Idea Hunter comes from a book titled The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make them Happen written by Andy Boyton and Bill Fischer. Andy Boyton is a longtime friend of EXPLO, Dean of the Boston College Carroll School of Management, and spoke at our EXPLO Elevate Founding Member convening last October.  

My inspiration for writing this blog about being an Idea Hunter came after a visit last week with one of our newest member schools, the New England Innovation Academy, where I shared Andy’s concise and thought-provoking book. When I read the book last year, it had an impact on me, and helped me think about how my colleagues and I at EXPLO Elevate can be Idea Hunters to help our schools. But it can also be a powerful, practical and useful tool for school leaders.


Andy and his co-author use the word IDEA as an acronym for the overall Idea Hunter process:


The first step in being an Idea Hunter is to “know your gig” and to have or develop genuine interest in seeking ideas that relate to it. This is the fuel that drives your hunt. “Knowing your gig” is a bit like knowing your personal brand and identity, from a professional perspective. For example, Henry Ford’s gig was to create a car for everyone. A school leader’s gig might focus around a key element of their school’s mission, perhaps finding new ways to spark student agency. My own gig is to constantly hunt for ideas from other sectors that might help school leaders create a culture of innovation.

Once you know who you are and what you seek, you need to be interested in the world around you. Andy writes: “Interest and curiosity lead to learning. And learning gives rise to ideas — thoughts of any kind that can spark innovation or simply a better product or process.” 


You should diversify your hunting ground for ideas by looking in many places and by interacting with many kinds of people. The authors cite a 2010 Accenture report that states management must “understand, embrace, and act on an amalgam of viewpoints, constantly questioning established ways of doing things and providing an antidote to the groupthink that stymies innovation.” It is important that school leaders interact regularly with people who may not share their own views so they do not live in an echo-chamber. Joining cohorts, attending conferences, and having lunch or coffee (or the virtual equivalent) with people outside your school circle contributes to creating a fertile and diverse hunting ground. At EXPLO Elevate, one of our guiding principles is to bring diverse perspectives to our cooperative, by looking cross-sector for ideas that can move schools forward.


The next step in becoming an effective idea hunter is “mastering the habits of the hunt” — in other words, training yourself to be an effective idea hunter. Ideas come to those who are in the habit of looking for ideas. Andy discusses the disciplined process of some of history’s greatest idea hunters, including Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, and Warren Buffet. One of the common traits these people share is being a strong observer and finding a means of recording observations. He gives a simple diagnostic to ask yourself at the end of each week: What’s my daily educational process? Did I read a newspaper or journal article in the past few days? Did I take part in any stimulating conversations? What have I learned this week? Did I make any connections between my personal experiences and my projects? Did I run any ideas by other people?

It is imperative that school leaders work at building their idea hunting muscle. Like mastering a sport or musical instrument, it takes disciplined practice. At EXPLO Elevate, we strive to create a fertile ground for idea hunting through diverse content, and through cohort-based models like our Communities of Practice. 


Being agile in your idea hunting involves creating two things:  “idea flow” and great conversations.  

IDEA FLOW is critical, since rarely is an idea fully baked but often needs to be combined with other ideas. You should be agile and move towards different sources of ideas and different applications of ideas. Space matters: bringing people in an office or cafeteria together creates accidental interactions that lead to new ideas. Pixar Studios is referenced as an organization that designed their facility to create these interactions. (The challenge now is figuring out how to have these unplanned collaborations while still keeping physical distance.) People should have conversations outside their regular circles. Andy recommends using prototypes to help refine and narrow down ideas — something our own Ross Peters discussed in a recent webinar, Pilot-Programs in 2020–Now More Than Ever Make Some Small Bets.

GREAT CONVERSATIONS, the authors write, “are building blocks of innovation, ways to move an idea from origination to application. To create successful conversations, make sure you’re sending the right signals to your conversation partners, letting them know you’re interested in a real exchange of ideas.” Be a continuer of conversations, not a terminator. “Continuers invite honest discussion, they build ideas. Terminators pour cold water on conversations; they kill off ideas.” Asking good questions is essential. Great questions propel innovation. Real questions flow out of genuine interest and curiosity, or as we like to say, a spirit of exploration! 

The work environment must feel safe so that people will open up and share their ideas. The authors describe how sitcom writers hold up a “stupid stick” when ideating to signal they are going to share a potentially crazy, stupid idea. Psychological safety is also a key element in the Collective Genius framework for creating an innovative culture, as described in Fueling an Innovation Culture. Google conducted a study that found that psychological safety within teams was the biggest determining factor in achieving high team productivity. For more on creating psychological safety within your teams, see this great guide from Google’s re:Work initiative.

School Leaders must be agile in their innovation process — they need to have a strong flow of ideas to feed their engines, and have conversations with people outside their normal circles — something we hope to help facilitate at EXPLO Elevate. 

I encourage you to pause and reflect during these difficult times: can you move from resilience to antifragility? Can you take your eyes off the obstacle immediately in front of you on the trail and begin to focus on what lies ahead? And while you are doing that, try to pause and take a moment for some self-care by seeking to be present in the moment and enjoying the beauty of the ride.