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How to get a big idea: start small

Technology & Data

How to get a big idea: start small


Ken Hudson writes that if you want a ‘Big Idea’ you should start with small wins.

I remember meeting with the CEO of a large international packaged goods brand who spent the entire time imploring his leadership team to come up with a big idea.

This sounded impressive, but when I asked him later in what area he wanted a big idea, he said it didn’t matter – he just wanted a big idea, any big idea.

I also queried how he might recognise a big idea. He answered: we will just know.

I have spent a great deal of time in and around marketing departments and advertising agencies on the lookout for a big idea. Just occasionally we would all agree we had one of those exciting but slippery beasts and hoped others would agree with us.

It’s an alluring treasure hunt but do we really know when a big idea has landed?

I used to believe this was possible but I have changed. Here’s why: big ideas are always easy to identify in retrospect after their success takes hold.

Let’s consider Earth Hour. Today it is in 162 countries, involving 7000 towns and cities, touching millions of people around the world. A Big Idea to be sure. But was this always the case? Earth Hour started in one city (Sydney) seven years ago. According to its website: “Little did we know how massive it was going to become.” In other words, Earth Hour became a big idea by starting small – one city for one hour.

That’s the point. Big ideas mostly grow out of smaller ones.

I believe you can never tell in advance which ones are going to grow and which ones will wither and die.

Fortunately most of the world embraced the originality and simplicity of Earth Hour. It’s a lovely example of what organisational theorist, Karl Weick called Small Wins.

He made the point that many social problems seem so big (eg. world hunger) that they feel overwhelming resulting in inaction and feelings of helplessness.

The most effective way to cope with this, Weick observed, is to adopt a small-wins approach.


What is a small win?

A small win is a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance. By itself, one small win may seem unimportant. A series of wins at small but significant tasks, however, reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals. 

That’s from Small Wins: Redefining the scale of social problems, by Karl E Weick, January 1984.

So the grand, romantic search for a big win is actually better served by an achievable focus on lots of smaller ones.

The best way to encourage this transformation is to test lots of small ideas and see what happens.

Learn from what consumers, customers or users say, improve and try again.

The emphasis is to start in a small way, with a small team and budget.

You can still hang on to the big dream but let’s not continue to fool ourselves that we know what a big idea is.

So here’s your new albeit humble treasure map – seek new insights, ask more original questions and try lots of small approaches and see what happens in the market-place – you may strike gold after all.



Ken Hudson

Dr Ken Hudson is a former marketing director (Amex) and has a PhD in organisational creativity. He is also the inventor of creative thinking tool, Blitz (www.letsblitz.com)

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