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The Big Idea Myth

2011 May 21
by Greg Satell

Do you have a big idea?  Is it really, really, really big?  Huge even?

We are idea machines.  We come up with new ones constantly, usually at odd times and in strange places. There’s probably nothing more romantic than someone in love with an idea. We tend to glorify flashes of genius because it’s exciting and makes a good story.

However, many people with great ideas have been lost to history, while some have become famous for ideas that others had too.  For better or worse, it takes more than just a clever notion to make a difference in the world.

Gregor Mendel’s Big Idea

Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, had a big idea.  He thought that there were specific laws that governed how we inherit characteristics from our ancestors.  He was so sure of his idea that he spent 7 years researching pea plants, wrote a paper and presented it to the local scientific society.  He then went back to his duties at the abbey and was promptly forgotten.

It wasn’t until decades after his death that his idea came to the fore and he became considered the “father of genetics.”  It was helped along by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  Of course, Darwin wasn’t the only one who thought of that.  He published On the Origin of the Species only after it became clear that Alfred Russel Wallace had the same idea.

Thomas Kuhn, in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pointed out that, although history usually records that one person in connection with a particular breakthrough, a closer look usually reveals that several people could rightly claim credit for important discoveries.

We all know Albert Einstein, but few have heard of David Hilbert, who published his theory of general relativity at almost the same time.  Would it have made a big difference if the order had been reversed?

Google’s Small Ideas

Google is famous for having built an enormous company based on one big idea, their PageRank algorithm, which ranks web pages based on the links they receive from other web sites.  However, Jon Kleinberg of Cornell published a similar (and many believe superior) idea called the HITS algorithm around the same time.

The difference was that Larry Page and Sergey Brin started a company, hired lots of engineers and generated thousands of smaller ideas that improved search further.  Today, everybody knows how PageRank works, but Google is still the search leader in almost every country and language.

Of course, they didn’t make much money with until they developed their AdWords and AdSense programs.  That was a truly inspired idea, but it wasn’t Google’s.  It was developed by a company called Overture, which was acquired by Yahoo, neither of whom made much money in search.

Why Apple Isn’t a Disruptive Innovator

Apple is revered for its great ideas.  They do a superior job of marketing themselves as a company that inspires us to “Think Different,” like in this fantastic ad.

However, it’s hard to think of any idea that Apple originated.  They certainly didn’t invent personal computers, but the Apple II was a breakaway success.  Xerox invented the graphical user interface, but the Macintosh brought it to consumers.  The story is similar for digital music players, smart phones and tablet computers.

Much like Google’s search, we don’t love Apple’s products because they are original ideas, but because they work so well.  While management gurus like to crow on about first mover advantages, it is often the fast (and sometimes not so fast) followers who achieve the greatest success.

What’s interesting is that Apple is often credited with pioneering categories that they didn’t originate, but perfected.  When ideas are successful, we call them memes (a concept, incidentally, that was arrived at almost simultaneously by E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins).

Of course, when brainstorms aren’t successful, we don’t have a fancy name for them.  They’re just dumb ideas.

Networking Idea Spaces

The reason that big ideas often don’t amount to much is that no idea can make it on its own.  Just like cars need roads and gas stations, suburbs need cars and shopping malls need suburbs, ideas become powerful when they interact with other ideas.  Technology evolves when ideas combine.

Richard Ogle calls this networking idea spaces.  Matt Ridley refers to it as ideas having sex.  Corporations, which defend their ideas with patents and armies of lawyers, are becoming more comfortable with the concept of open innovation because no idea can truly stand on its own.

So, while ideas are important, it’s almost impossible to tell in advance which ones will be valuable, because that will depend on the context into which they arrive.  Take a closer look at any big idea and, undoubtedly, you will find that its prominence is due to a collection of smaller ones.

– Greg

14 Responses leave one →
  1. May 22, 2011

    Greg,

    Maybe it’s wrong to think of Apple’s innovation (or lack of it) in the context of product development. Perhaps it’s actually in being able to powerfully and elegantly communicate the ‘why’ behind their products. That’s also an innovation, albeit of a different kind, and not the type that we usually consider in this regard.

    Indeed, much like Simon Simek talks about it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html

    Greg

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Greg

    I definitely agree. While they are not generally a disruptive innovator (except in the case of i-Tunes) they surely innovate every day. In fact, they are a prime example of how you can achieve great things by relentless perfecting small details.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  2. May 22, 2011

    Hi Greg, great ideas (little, big, and everything in between) combined with creative, effective communications, combined with proper messaging and packaging, combined with the support and backing of the right people at the right time (in terms of influence and $$) are the ones most likely to be valuable and successful. An idea that is born in a vacuum and stays there, no matter how good it is, will likely get sucked up in that vacuum. Thanks for another thought-provoking post 🙂

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Great points Julie!

    Thanks.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  3. shiv vasisht permalink
    May 23, 2011

    Grag,

    Also, isn’t a big idea often the combination of a series of smaller ideas that perhaps had little value in themselves?

    The electric light bulb was not possible without the invention of the vacuum flask, the electric battery (which, in itself, was not possible without…), the discovery of the properties of tungsten wire… This then combined with the need to deliver effective lighting to people.

    I often wonder what might have happened if Alexander Graham Bell or Edison came up against investors. “What, plant poles across the country just to send across a verbal message/light a lamp? You got to be kidding!”

    Maybe an essential ingredient of the Big Idea is also a Big Idiot who will spend money, time and energy in twiddling around with scraps of information that nobody wants to look at anew?

    Best!

    Shiv

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Shiv,

    I absolutely agree and wrote about it before: http://www.digitaltonto.com/2011/how-technology-evolves/

    There is, btw, a great book by Brian Arthur that makes the point that technology has three components:

    – Every technology harnesses phenomena
    – Technologies are combinations
    – Every component of technology is itself a technology

    You can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1416544054/ref=s9_simb_gw_xi_s3_p14_t1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=17T5HAMFA9T2KWJ4721V&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=470938631&pf_rd_i=507846

    – Greg

    [Reply]

    shiv vasisht Reply:

    Thanks, will do. Excuse my misspelling your name, Greg!

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    No problem, I do the same (and often!)

  4. May 23, 2011

    Most of the time we are inclined to make big plans and set long-range goals under the influence of a “big idea” but we tend to forget and examine the goals we already have in relation to that “big idea”

    A big idea seems to trigger the belief that we also have to create in large structures.

    A big idea tends to make us think in ideal abstract forms which is good only if we can correlate that with short term structures.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Absolutely Spiro! Great ideas form over time. They never arise full-formed.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  5. jean-louis permalink
    May 16, 2012

    jumping on your board, this last article highlights the differences between invention, discovery, innovation, and I would like to refer to the book of scott berkun when it comes to the social aspects of innovation (12 myths of innovation), and to Victor Hugo who is supposed to have said: “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come”.

    Be there!

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thx Jean-Louis. I’ve read Berkun’s book and it is indeed excellent!

    If anyone wants to pick it up, you can find it here

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  6. Rik permalink
    April 10, 2013

    This article seems to me to illustrate the Two Cultures issue raised by C. P. Snow back in 1959. It is written entirely from the viewpoint of a scientist (or technologist in this case) rather than someone from the humanities.

    Scientists readily acknowledge their work is largely incremental, the more modest talk about standing on the shoulders of giants. Artists more often have ideas that are big, spontaneous and original.

    My concern is that technocrats seem increasingly fearful and dismissive of creative thinking. We need all sorts of problem solving – there are certainly enough problems that need solving – so to dismiss spontaneous ideas because you cannot see the heritage is simply narrow minded. And just because two people had similar ideas at a similar type does not prove a link – there are coincidences.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Rik,

    I’m not sure its fair to assume that technologists are anti-creativity. After all, how else would they create technology!

    – Greg

    [Reply]

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