We live in an age filled with big ideas but devoid of any real consensus regarding how to prioritize them. Working with colleagues, I have attempted to systematically think about the big ideas that surround us: what they are, why they matter, the progress being made in adopting them and the obstacles preventing any particular big idea from moving to the next level.
The big idea behind this research is that if we understood the world’s big ideas, we would be able to craft a better future.
The 19th-century French novelist Victor Hugo wrote, “One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas.” But apparently the invasion can be ignored. The first cognitive gut-punch I received in my research was that, in many organizations, the invasion of big ideas appears to have stalled.
Too often, big ideas exist in press releases, CEO public statements and marketing campaigns but are not part of the operational agenda. Why are they, in many instances, divorced from what happens day to day? Why do organizations that spend a lot of time researching and polishing what they say spend so little time making sure that what they say and what they do are synchronized?
Here are nine big ideas that should not be ignored.
Big Idea #1: It’s not about you
Empathy is critically important. IT has to genuinely care about the end user’s experience. If you come up with what you think is a great solution to a user problem that receives a lukewarm reception when you present it to the people who will use it, then it is not a great solution. And you have to listen to the users to learn what would make it great from their perspective. That isn’t easy. William James, one of America’s most important philosophers, understood this and said repeatedly that it is exceptionally difficult to really see things from another’s point of view.
Big Idea #2: The experts aren’t expert
Innovation is often stumbled upon by those too naive to be aware that something can’t be done. Successful managers actively listen to ideas from team members with varying levels of experience. In a constantly changing world, the returns on expertise are finite.
Big Idea #3: You don’t have to know it all
There is too much for any one person to know, so don’t beat yourself up for lapses in your own knowledge. You certainly need to know some things, but the best thing to know is the thought leaders in your space. You need to cultivate relationships with people who know things that you don’t. You are only as good as your network.
Big Idea #4: Organizations have to be ready for a big idea
Very few companies and executives were ready for mobile computing in 1993, when the Apple Newton was launched. This had changed by 2007, when the Apple iPhone was released. Having a methodology that hones an organization’s readiness to act upon a big idea is a good idea.
Big Idea #5: “Big” is relative
Singularity University defines a big idea as one that will positively impact the lives of a billion people in 10 years. In some institutions, a big idea is anything above the purchasing authority of a department manager. How does your organization define “big”?
Big Idea #6: Not all big ideas last
Knowing how much something costs and how long an initiative is going to take are key inputs to quality decisions. The investment should be proportional to the lasting value. Mistakes can end up as monuments to poor judgment. In the days of colonial expansion and industrialization, the British built railroads and established train stations around the world, perceiving them as symbols of the future. Many of these stations are now irrelevant or no longer exist.
Big Idea #7: Some big ideas can only nudge us in the right direction
The paperless economy has been a big idea for almost 30 years without ever being fulfilled. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Over the years, we have moved closer to paperless without ever getting there, but the goal remains enticing. In 2012, the McKinsey Global Institute crunched the numbers and concluded that if we got rid of paper (and email) and moved to more contemporary forms of collaboration such as Slack, Jive, Yammer, Chatter and Google Apps, productivity would increase by up to 25%.
Big Idea #8: The status quo isn’t totally broken
Not everything we are doing currently is stupid. In the words of playwright Bertolt Brecht, “Old and new wisdom mix admirably.” There is a lot of wisdom floating around enterprises today. The trick is to figure out how to harness and preserve the knowledge and practices that are still relevant and exfoliate those that are not.
Big Idea #9: Big ideas frequently start out as “bad” ideas
A hundred years ago, homework was described as a “sin against childhood.”
What big ideas are shaping your tomorrow?
Futurist Thornton A. May is a speaker, educator and adviser and the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. Visit his website at thorntonamay.com, and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.