The proper measure of any idea is if it successfully helps to address the problem or fulfill a need. If it doesn’t do anything, what’s the point?
At the end of a brainstorm, sometimes you find your Big Idea. (A salsa idea as my friend Raphael says.) But afterward, the density of the organisation, internal critique and detailed analysis reduces the salsa idea to something bordering on flavourless. (A vanilla idea, Raphael says – which I argue is unfair because I happen to love the flavour of vanilla, but that’s another story.)
Before I get to a definition of a Big Idea, let me start by giving some suggestions on how to find, create and keep the Big Idea big:
This is a no-brainer, but often overlooked. What exactly do you want the idea to do?
There must be clarity at the beginning of a creative session about the purpose of the brainstorm, and the purpose of the idea. More so, do you have universal agreement? Without it, it’s easy for other people later on – who were not part of the original discussion, who second-guess every decision made, who feel the need to play devil’s advocate – to sidetrack your idea for their own agenda. Eventually they’ll water down, change or axe your idea. So plan ahead. Always start with internal agreement from the key decision-makers on what the Big Idea must accomplish. Otherwise, you’ll wasting your time. Besides, pre-selling never hurts. It prepares people for the moment you unveil the Big Idea to earn their approval.
Vague modifiers are not good. What is BIG to you may not be BIG to someone else. Before I do brainstorms, I like to meet with my client to talk about what they expect.
Here’s a question that always starts an interesting conversation. Describe the Big Idea to me – but don’t tell me what the Big Idea is.
By and large, people are not immediately articulate with their thoughts. They need time to ramble (or consider in their heads) to make sense of what they think or believe. That’s OK. That’s why the question is a good way to start that discussion.
Describe the idea, I say.
I want it BIG, they say.
That’s great. We agree already, I say. Now, describe ‘big’ for me.
Some typical answers:
- A see lots of people are doing something.
- There’s lots of media coverage.
- Twitter goes berserk.
- It changes what people believe about a topic.
- It’s totally unexpected.
- If I saw it, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Each one of these answers tells me something about what they expect when I unveil the Big Idea. If it doesn’t match these initial impressions, I’ll never sell the idea. Sometimes, their remarks challenge my own impressions of what I think the Big Idea needs to do. Sometimes, I need to judiciously adjust expectations. But either way, I have a better idea of what I need to do.
To improve both the quality of brainstorm – as well as the quality of the Big Idea – I cannot understate the importance of the right research. That means getting to know as much as possible about the people who will interact with your Big Idea. You cannot come up with an idea if you don’t know the person whom you’re making the idea. It’s like building the perfect house for a client you never meet. Your changes are slim that you’ll be successful – if at all.
In addition to talking with the end user, talk to other people who’ll be helpful in creating the Big Idea, such as people who may help to …
- Develop the idea – such as engineers, builders, planners, manufacturers.
- Package the idea – such as people in product development, graphic design, marketing or communications.
- Sell the idea – specifically, internal colleagues and key influencers in areas where you’ll need endorsement and support to earn the decision-maker’s approval. These people might be in risk or issues management. These people might be those who work with or sell ideas to the decision-makers frequently. They may give you nothing more than the right font size to use in the proposal. Every piece helps because you want all of your chessmen lined up to get the Big Idea sold.
And, double-check yourself. Talk to people who know the end user well enough to tell you why they might resist the idea. What problem is your Big Idea trying to address or eliminate? If your idea doesn’t resonate against the problem, they’ll never use the Big Idea. Here’s some thoughts on Defining The Problem if you want more background.
I mean this both literally or figuratively. If you’re trying to convince someone a Big Idea is BIG, words won’t do it justice. You need to demonstrate its bigness.
On more than one occasion, I’ve physically built a model or simulation of what I want. Or, I’ve drawn out the idea on paper. In either case, the purpose is to delve into the creation of the idea in hopes of improving the outcome. You learn a lot about your idea when you do: what’s possible, what’s not, what needs to be changed, what order steps need to occur. Trust me, once implementation starts, you do not want to find out your Big Idea is a Very Small Bad Idea.
This step becomes more rich when you involve others in the construction. It helps to:
- Judge how an idea looks – which might mean the aesthetic features of the idea, or how it appears to the media (how photogenic will it be for photographs?), if it fits within the space, how will (foot) traffic flow around it?
- Examine the process, phases or steps – which encompasses a variety of points: creating the idea; bringing in partners, vendors, contractors – and the client(!); seeking permissions or approvals; planning a budget or calendar
- Understand the (technical) details – whether it’s seeing its relationship to other elements (such as the competition, or other events, or other items on the agenda), or simply knowing all of the key points to address questions and concerns of third parties who have a stake in the success of the idea.
- Improve the idea – More often not, I universally improve the idea by building it or drawing it. When I can involve others, seeking their input and counsel, an idea goes organically by improvement of well-selected people. Personally, I think one of the worst things you can do is keep your idea fully to yourself. For me, the act of creativity is most thrilling when it involves a group of people sharing thoughts to create ideas.
That’s all fine and good, but seriously – What is a Big Idea?
I hate to burst your bubble after reading all of this, but the best definition of a Big Idea is impossible. Why? Because you never know something will be a Big Idea until after it’s been launched. I have had 100s of sensational ideas that were tripped-up on implementation. I’ve also had 1000s of horrible ideas that turned out to be brilliant successes. I no longer look at an idea and say – Yup, that’s it! Instead, I follow Grandma Eklund’s advice. Do the best job you can. And afterward, pray.
Still, you’ve come this far, so here’s direction. In the spirit of Describe to me the Big Idea ... here’s some ideas (excuse the pun).
- A Big Idea is simple. There’s never been a complex Big Idea, ever. You can tell people what the Big Idea is in one sentence, and everyone gets it without explanation.
- A Big Idea is astounding. It changes everything you know about something. It’s equal parts shocking, risky and head-shaking – but not necessarily “big” nor expensive. In fact, its simplicity is what often makes the Big Idea so stunning.
- A Big Idea involves. People want to be part of it. And in today’s society, there’s an immediate need to tell someone else.
Any other qualifiers you’d add to a Big Idea?