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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 22, 2003

Anyone can be an 'ideas person'

By Steven Gray
Washington Post

In May, Randall Thacker, a 30-year-old MBA student, began an internship at Morris Associates Inc., a career management and outsourcing firm in the District of Columbia. Hired in part to help the company explore growth options, Thacker offered to survey clients about their needs and, among other things, suggested making its Web site more user-friendly.

The secrets to success

• Be willing to take risks.

• Develop ideas by reading widely, from pop culture magazines to academic and business journals.

• Observe and listen to get an understanding of your organization's mission and culture.

• Tailor your idea to fit your organization's mission.

• Identify people — preferably those with the ear of your boss — who can help shape ideas before you pitch them to senior managers.

• Know the personality of your boss to determine the best way to pitch an idea.

— Washington Post

Not all of Thacker's ideas were embraced. But they certainly got him noticed by Tom Morris, the firm's president, who later hired him as an associate and says, without much prompting, "I listen to a lot of what he thinks."

Great words, coming from a boss.

But how does one become an "ideas person" at work? You've got to be evangelical in pushing fresh ideas to a variety of people, particularly senior officials who can legitimize an idea and put it on a path to reality, according to Laurence Prusak, a professor at Babson College in Massachusetts and co-author of "What's the Big Idea?" (Harvard Business School Press).

"Ideas practitioners," as the authors dub these thinkers, are typically quirky, well-educated mid-level managers. They don't have to be big-fish business gurus like Jack Welch, the former GE chief executive whose revolutionary ideas are widely credited with transforming that corporation.

Anyone can become an "ideas person." Even if you're just starting a career, you can work toward such a reputation by reading widely — pop culture magazines, as well as trade, business and academic journals. It also helps to attend business conferences, then synthesize and adapt the ideas for your own organization.

"Once you're known for ideas, people will expect them from you. People aren't surprised if you push for the next wave of ideas," Prusak said.

Morris tells his clients that the first steps toward a reputation for being a good source of ideas are to listen and observe. Observation, he and others said, helps an employee understand the organization's corporate mission and culture, and the personalities of its leaders.

"How you present your ideas is very important," Morris said. "There's a political lay of the land you've got to understand."

Some organizations prefer ideas to flow from senior officials, while others support the growth of ideas from the ground up, said Ane Powers, manager of the White Hawk Group, a D.C. career-management consulting firm.

The experts suggest quickly identifying people within and beyond your organization who can help shape ideas before they reach senior managers. Untraditional ideas are often good, they said, but be careful not to veer too far from the organization's mission.

"You don't want to go too much on a limb, especially in this economic climate," warned Thomas H. Davenport, a professor at Babson College and a co-author with Prusak of "What's The Big Idea?" Sometimes, he added, "people come right out of school saying they want to keep working with ideas. But you have to show a track record of having delivered results before people will let you go off and play with ideas. It's a privilege, in a sense."

The idea of a newsletter had long been bandied about Morris Associates. Last summer, Thacker not only suggested launching the newsletter, but also offered to work on it. That caught Tom Morris' attention.

"It's saying, 'I have an idea for a newsletter. Can I have some time to sketch it out?' As a manager, I've got a lot of respect for the fact that he's on the line doing this," he said of Thacker.

At first, Thacker said he felt a bit of anxiety about pitching ideas. Now, he has no regrets. "You've got to be willing to take the risk that not all your ideas are going to be accepted," he said. "If you're not honest with yourself, you're useless."