Hey, What’s the Big Idea?

When was the last time you or someone in your organisation had a really big idea? And what happened? Something big…or nothing at all?


It’s often the big ideas that actually make a quantum leap possible in product or service innovation and business outcomes. When James Watt said “Hey I’ve got this idea about using steam to power manufacturing machinery” the world could not know what it was in for. In his case his big idea became the springboard for many other big ideas about how to adapt that principle to an infinite range of possibilities.

(Image: Watt’s Steam Engine -Courtesy usgennet.org)

Many big ideas translate into physical inventions but equally many are intangible concepts such as management methodologies that sweep the world, like Covey’s “seven habits”.

How big can a big idea be?

Some big ideas are inspirational to not only individuals and organisations but to entire nations. Who’s big idea was it to go to the moon…and why? Revisit JFK’s famous “We choose to go to the moon” speech of 1962.

Even small ideas can suddenly become big ideas based on their overwhelming impact – like the Mud Army of 23,000 volunteers that arose during the South East Queensland floods of 2012 out of a simple idea of grabbing a broom and helping out strangers.

Sometimes big ideas need centuries to develop. Consider the many far reaching ideas originally conceived by Leonardo Da Vinci (helicopter, flying machine, parachute) that he was not able to effectively progress from the theoretical state owing to his designs being too early for adequate technology required to turn them into practical models.

On the other hand some big ideas can often be left to wither on the vine unappreciated, unresourced and unfulfilled until the world (or some visionary champion) is ready to take them up. Consider those famous quotes:

  • About computers: “There will be a world market for no more than five computers” – attributed to an IBM boss.
  • ·About the telephone: “The device is inherently of no value to us.” — Western Union internal memo, 1876.
  • ·About television: “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.” — Lee DeForest, inventor.
  • About sterilisation: “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” — Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872.

big idea

(Image:  Da Vinci’s inventions – Courtesy KSL.com)

The Big Ideas Paradox

All of us would like to be the person who comes up with the big idea that makes that giant leap forward The problem is that big ideas can have a dark side. Not all big ideas produce positive results

  • big ideas can be simple and unobtrusive or they can be complex and highly disruptive.
  • big ideas can produce big returns but can be risky.
  • big ideas can be fabulous visions or they can be mere delusions.fukuhima
  • some big ideas in history were absolute disasters because those charged with their implementation were not up to it, like the Dardanelles campaign of 1915.
  • some big ideas may have significant or unacceptable side effects whose collateral cost can be greater than the core benefit. We still haven’t developed completely safe nuclear power.

(Image: Fukushima – Courtesy nbcnews.com)

  • Just because a big idea works in one set of circumstances doesn’t mean that it will work in a different set of circumstances
  • big ideas, even the lofty ones like abolition of slavery, can attract violent opposition and even prompt wars where they impinge on the freedoms, rights, interests or privileges of others.

It is this paradox that causes many organisations to take an ultra-conservative approach and in many cases lose fantastic opportunities because they were not prepared to take a risk, or indeed even to evaluate the risk:benefit scenarios of big ideas. Nothing discourages innovation like the continual dousing of emerging sparks of brilliance by an unreceptive senior management.

So next time a big idea comes along what will you do?

Creativity in the workplace

Let’s think about how big ideas can generate in the workplace.

It is my observation that a workplace where people are encouraged to express creative ideas generates creative business solutions. This doesn’t mean we should always look for way-out or fanciful dreams – however now and again these can produce breakthrough initiatives.

It is important not to discourage creative thought but to allow new thinking to be explored and objectively evaluated. Even though when tested some might fail the practical test – sometimes big ideas which at first blush seem wanting, sometimes at a deeper examination produce gold.

Some things to do to encourage creativity in the workplace include:

  • Introducing a competitive sense by offering small incentives for new solutions to old problems
  • Removing the impediment of silo mentality by using cross organisation or cross function working parties especially comprised of people who have not worked together before
  • Expand thinking horizons by sponsoring visits to other workplaces, even ones that don’t do what yours does – new ideas are often found in the strangest places
  • Overcome insularity by encouraging participation in wider forums, networks and conferences.CMEN333
  • Remove barriers to initiative by keeping bureaucratic rules to a minimum – focus on outcomes rather than processes.
  • Engage all levels of the organisation by regularly publicising some key challenge facing the organisation and asking for suggestions – solutions are not the monopoly of senior management.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel, but improve on the axel – use other people’s ideas and learn from others improving on what others have done.
  • Be adventurous and use informal activities to develop out-of-the-box ideas to address persistent problems

Quotes from other Big Ideas people;

A business has to be involving, it has to be fun, and it has to exercise your creative instincts.”- Richard Branson

Creative thinking – in terms of idea creativity – is not a mystical talent. It is a skill that can be practised and nurtured.” – Edward de Bono

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