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Oct 4, 2021 2021-10

Managerial attention and the quest for new ideas

In a highly competitive business environment, no company can rest on its laurels for long. To drive shareholder value, companies have to innovate, whether that means developing new products or finding new ways to exploit the ones they already own. Both strategies have their risks. New product development is expensive. However, if you spend too much time fishing in familiar waters, you could be left high and dry when there’s a sudden change in the market. So where should managers focus their attention? As someone who studies organizational growth and behavioral strategy, Dylan Boynton wants to understand how companies navigate choices like these. 

“I’m broadly interested in the interplay of managerial attention and a firm’s use of technology and knowledge,” explained Boynton, a postdoctoral research associate who recently joined Gies. Boynton completed a PhD in management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where his dissertation explored this topic from a few different angles.

Postdoctoral research associate Dylan BoyntonFirst, he looked at the relationship between managers’ short- and long-term focus and their company’s innovative efforts. “Innovation is core to economic growth,” said Boynton. Companies are constantly acquiring knowledge and manipulating it to create the combinations we recognize as innovation. “If you draw on more bodies of knowledge, you have a better chance of creating something new. So, if you’re combining ideas in broad terms, maybe long-term attention is better,” said Boynton. “But if you’re combining narrowly — if you kind of know your groove and you’re in a certain knowledge space — then short-term attention may be beneficial.”

Even when companies do manage to bring innovations to the market, they’re not always equally received. Some drive company valuations, while others barely make a blip on the radar. Boynton theorized that some of that could have to do with how well managers focus their attention on communications. “I found that when managers’ ‘talk’ aligns with their historical pattern of innovation, there is a benefit to how the market values their new patents,” said Boynton. 

Take the iPhone for example. Part of its value was derived from its inherent value as a communications device. But part of its value also came from the reputation of the firm that was putting the product together. Apple and Steve Jobs had a long history of forecasting trends and bringing innovations to the market. Over time, Jobs became the technological equivalent of E.F. Hutton. When he spoke, people listened. And then they bought, making Apple the first trillion-dollar company in history.

Beyond his research, Boynton says he looks forward to teaching Leadership and Teams (BADM 508) in the Master of Science in Management program because it focuses on one of the most important elements of business — the teams that make them run.

Like most of us, Boynton has worked on his share of teams. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in history and English, Boynton worked as a consultant for Deloitte in New York, an analyst for a creative agency out of Boston, and eventually as vendor manager for Amazon in Seattle, where he oversaw nearly 60,000 items. And at every one of those companies, he was part of a much larger team.

“Teams are the lifeblood of how work gets done,” said Boynton, which is why it’s essential for tomorrow’s business leaders to understand them. “Teams have dynamics. Teams have goals. Teams perform well or badly, but you as an individual are part of a team, and that team itself is embedded in an organization. So how do you fit in, and how do you navigate the broader organization that you’re embedded in?” Boynton says he hopes to help students explore all those issues and learn how they interconnect.

Boynton, who will be part of the Illinois Strategic Organizations Initiative at Gies, says he’s also excited to join the world-class faculty in the Department of Business Administration. “I think it’s a department characterized by a lot of intellectual diversity, so I hope I can continue that trend by bringing something slightly different to the table.”