A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 19, 2013

The Big Idea Myth

Our obsession with The Big Idea has gotten worse. As a society we have historically been besotted with the notion of striking it big, hitting the lottery, finding The Answer to whatever bedevils us.

And now the potential payoff accorded to intellectual capital like patents, copyrights, brands and trademarks has ignited a feverish excitement of even greater - and possibly more delusional proportions.What makes it both more fascinating and more lamentable is that it primarily affects the better educated, the reflexively connected and the technologically fixated.

Stories abound of people waking up at night to write down the first thought that occurs to them - and then attempting to patent or copyright or trademark it. This is the new Gold Rush, spurred along by the big numbers being bandied about in the various lawsuits major corporations like Apple and Samsung and Google are lobbing at each other. Billions to be had just by thinking of something first. No heavy lifting, physically or intellectually.

The problem with this trend-let is that defies history, reality and common sense. In most realms where business and science intersect, technology, particularly, the big idea tends to be an accumulation of lots of little ideas often thought up by a more than one person. Frequently they were unaware of the other's existence, let alone work. Subsequent inventions, innovations and break-throughs based on predecessor's insights are an accumulation of information transformed into knowledge which was then converted into wisdom. The notion of standing on the shoulders of those who came before us is all the more powerful for its figurative nature.

Global culture is replete with cautionary tales about those who had a brilliant idea but could not make the transition to practical application. There are also plenty of inspirational anecdotes about the plodding, underfinanced underdog who created vast wealth by his or her dogged pursuit of a dream.

The point, as the following article explains, is that big ideas are usually an agglomeration of lots of little ones. And that those hoping to capture magic in a bottle with just one effort are missing the far greater benefits to be accrued from understanding the legacy of intelligence combined with hard work and luck that leads to the most enduring successes. JL

Greg Satell comments in Digital Tonto:
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.
INSERT 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.


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