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What’s the Big Idea?

When you’re a consultant, few things are as satisfying as having a former client or course attendee say, “We tried that thing. It worked.” Or even “Hey, we’ve decided to try that thing.”

I had the pleasure of hearing a comment like this when one of my past course attendees, a marketing director at one of the largest, most conservative companies on the planet, invited me to facilitate their team’s first 10%-time workshop. This is a concept I teach in my storytelling course. The concept comes from Jonathan Mildenhall, one-time head of creative strategy at Coca Cola, who suggested that content creators divide their time as follows:

  • 70% on managing day-to-day production tasks
  • 20% on developing innovative angles for their content
  • 10% on coming up with weird, out-of-the-box, differentiating ideas – big ideas – for their content

I urge teams to adopt a split like this not just for content creation but for all their work-related tasks.

While my client’s team couldn’t set aside a full day every two weeks (as would be required to earmark 10% of their time), they aimed to do it monthly. Theirs would be more of a 5%-time workshop. Still, they were had the spirit of the thing.

They called it Big Idea Day. It was a fantastic day.

What made it so? A couple of things come to mind. First, as I had recommended, the team pulled in people from all kinds of practices: marketing, accounting, product management, and customer service. Second, people had pre-homework; everyone was asked to come to Big Idea Day with some fun, interesting ideas to help them with brainstorming. They asked for my input on what a big idea should be.

I gave it some thought. What is a big idea?

I came up with four attributes to create some lines for the team to color within. Not every big idea must have all four, but the more of these you have, the better your big idea. I call this set of attributes the TASO:

  1. Transformational – A transformational idea can change attitudes, beliefs, behaviors. It opens up a new way to see things.
  2. Authorable – An authorable idea can be authored by us – as in “created” or “owned.” We may not own it yet, but we could and should.
  3. Simple – A simple idea is easy to “get.” Simple doesn’t mean lacking in complexity. It means instantly understandable.
  4. Original – An original idea is novel. It doesn’t have to be unique, but it should surprise without being absurd.

A big idea is about seeking, not finding. It’s usually a question, not an answer. It’s a new way of approaching a challenge that helps us make sense of something that has confused or confounded us. It may help us make sense of a set of isolated facts. A big idea is theory, not details.

What makes an idea “big” isn’t its own size or complexity; it’s the size or complexity of the thing you’re looking at. To get a big idea, you look at a big thing from a high level.

A big-idea workshop might yield multiple big ideas or one. I suggest dedicating the entire day to one main idea. Inevitably, groups end up with a mashup of ideas. That’s what makes the experience so magical. A big idea is never just one person’s idea. It’s a product of the group. No one can say which pieces came from where.

Want an example? I worked with a legal-information company that held a big-idea workshop centered on this statistic: Most solo legal practices were folding within 18 months. It turns out, no one was telling solo lawyers that marketing, accounting, and sales would be the main parts of the job. Many of these lawyers were giving up and taking jobs with firms. Was there an opportunity here? This legal-information company thought so. Their team devoted a big-idea workshop to this question: How might we double the average life of a solo practice? Their workshop launched a business university for solo lawyers.

I encourage you and your team to make more time to generate big ideas. What will your “business university for solo lawyers” be? Explore. You never know where those big ideas will come from. All you know is that your company needs them.

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