How Big Ideas are Built

How Big Ideas Are Built

Companies often ask themselves why their innovation efforts seem to produce so few truly game-changing ideas. Why are they mostly getting only lukewarm suggestions for incremental improvements rather than radical new concepts for revolutionizing their industries? How can an organization get dramatically better at generating big, breakthrough ideas?

To answer these questions, we first have to understand how big ideas are actually built. For a start, most people don’t even associate the notion of a building process with idea generation. Indeed, many senior executives still believe that ideas simply come to us out of nowhere in a sudden flash of inspiration. So the essential first step is to clarify how the creative process works. What is missing in most large companies is a theory of innovation that translates into a practical methodology for producing big ideas.

For well over a hundred years, academics from fields such as psychology, anthropology and neuroscience, as well as creative practitioners from the world of advertising, along with notable management scholars, have been studying how the human mind produces breakthroughs. Indeed, there is a substantial body of work on creativity that is readily available to business people. But the reality is that few corporate leaders and managers have given it much attention, preferring instead to focus on improving operational efficiency inside their organizations while hoping that – by some lucky accident – one of their people will have a Eureka moment while walking the dog.

What we now know quite conclusively is that creative ideas don’t just occur to us spontaneously from one moment to the next, although that might often appear to be the case. Our minds actually build them from a unique chain of associations and connections, sometimes over a considerable period of time. When we examine the creative process in more detail, we discover that breakthrough thinking is usually built on an illuminating insight (or a series of insights) into a situation or a problem that inspires an unexpected leap (or leaps) of association in the mind, resulting in a completely novel configuration of previously existing ideas. This fresh combination of thoughts, in which various, perhaps unrelated concepts and domains click together in a whole new relationship, is what suddenly manifests itself as a big idea or creative solution. That’s the famous Eureka moment when a light bulb seems to switch on in our heads.

How Einstein reinvented physics

When Albert Einstein came up with his revolutionary theory of special relativity, and shortly afterward with E = mc2, it didn’t just come to him out of the blue while he was sitting at his desk staring idly out of the window. By his own account, he had been thinking about it for at least seven years, starting during his diploma course at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zürich, where he studied mathematics and physics. At the turn of the twentieth century, when Einstein graduated, the great conundrum of physics was the apparent incompatibility between Newtonian laws of mechanics on the one hand and the new science of electromagnetism on the other, because it turned out that light did not behave as those classical laws predicted. This was the seemingly unsolvable puzzle that the young graduate Albert Einstein ambitiously determined he would try to solve.

Over the following seven years or so, he studied the work of his predecessors and peers—from Isaac Newton to James Clerk Maxwell, David Hume, Ernst Mach, Hendrik Lorentz, Henri Poincaré, and Max Planck—either building on or refuting their ideas. He explored radical new concepts through his famous thought experiments, like riding across the universe on a light beam, or being in an elevator in free fall. The answer finally revealed itself when Einstein came to an illuminating insight that fundamentally shifted his perspective. He did this by challenging conventional assumptions about time and space, and asking some radical new questions about physics that few had ever dared ask before: What if Newton’s laws of mechanics are not as fixed as everyone has believed for centuries? What if time and space are not absolute? What if they are variable, and the only universal constant is in fact the speed of light? (In my new book “The Four Lenses of Innovation,” this innovation perspective – or lens – is called “Challenging Orthodoxies.”).


Once this key insight opened Einstein’s eyes to see the solution to the problem, he was able to get to work immediately on the mathematical details, and in just five weeks he produced what is arguably the greatest scientific paper of the twentieth century: “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” What this story illustrates is that big ideas need more than a moment. There is a definite thinking process involved in constructing a breakthrough, and the stepping stone to a radical new idea is invariably a powerful new insight.

It’s all about the insights

Does this mean that coming up with a breakthrough is always going to require many years of hard work? Not at all. Sometimes a big idea can occur to us in a few minutes. But the constant factor in building a big idea is an insight (or a series of insights) that fundamentally shifts our perspective.

What gave Steve Jobs the idea back in 2005 that Apple should develop and launch its own smartphone?  It came from an insight into tech trends that had the potential to render the iPod obsolete. Jobs reasoned that if mobile phone companies could turn their devices into easy-to-use music players (which was not hard to do), then the iPod would no longer have a reason to exist. Having watched the cell phone replace digital cameras, alarm clocks, personal digital assistants, and other dedicated devices, it seemed only a matter of time before the iPod would go the same way. Why would anyone want to carry around two devices when they could combine both functions in one? (This is an example of using the second lens of innovation – “Harnessing Trends”).

The idea for a bagless vacuum cleaner didn’t just pop unexpectedly into James Dyson’s head while he was taking a shower. He was already thinking about how this product category might be improved when he happened to visit a local sawmill and noticed large centripetal separators (or industrial cyclones) removing sawdust from the air. Dyson’s insight was that this was a much more efficient way to collect dirt and dust than a vacuum bag (because the appliance loses suction power as the bag fills up). His big idea was to try to scale down an industrial cyclone and install it on a domestic vacuum cleaner. (This illustrates another of the four lenses of innovation – “Leveraging resources in new ways”).

Gary and Diane Heavin, founders of the global Curves franchise, didn’t simply wake up one day and say, “Hey, why don’t we open a women-only fitness club?” The idea came to them after recognizing a glaring problem with traditional gyms. They noticed that many women were feeling intimidated or embarrassed in these male-dominated environments and this insight – based on empathy – led them to ask if there was a way to better cater to women’s requirements. (This is the fourth lens of innovation – “Understanding Needs”).

What we conclude from this is that insights are the triggers for innovative thinking – they are the stepping stones that lead to radical new solutions. Just as a large, flat stone (or a series of stones) allows us to cross easily from one side of a stream to another, insights allow us to make the necessary leaps of association that build big ideas.

Improving your capacity for radical innovation


Now that we understand insights as the raw material out of which big ideas are built, we can begin to discuss a practical methodology for improving our capacity to innovate.

What companies need to understand is that you can’t produce big, breakthrough ideas unless you first generate the right kinds of insights. It’s like a farmer hoping to reap a bountiful harvest without first sowing the right seeds. We need to understand that the output is dependent on the input. Investing time, money, and effort in innovation without first building a rich portfolio of insights is mostly a fruitless exercise.

People are being asked to make giant leaps in creative thinking but without the intellectual stepping stones they need to get them from here to there. Their companies expect to get out-of-the-box ideas without developing the fresh and inspiring perspectives that can help people see out of the box in the first place.

What most large organizations are missing is a systematic methodology and an organized process for generating, capturing, sharing, and using powerful insights at the very front end of their innovation efforts. They may well invest time and money in acquiring insights of some sort, but are they the right kinds of insights for disrupting the rules of the game?

Do these insights challenge convention and stretch people’s thinking along new lines, or do they merely restate the obvious? Do they uncover the deeper implications and unexploited opportunities inherent in emergent discontinuities? Do they cast light on trends that competitors have either overlooked or ignored? Do they point to completely new ways of leveraging the company’s skills and assets, or other resources that exist outside the organization? Do they offer profoundly new perspectives on customer needs, provoking breakthrough solutions for transforming the customer experience?

These are the kinds of insights companies should be actively accumulating and then using to fuel the front end of their innovation process. The only way to produce ideas radical enough to drive dramatic growth, open up unexploited market spaces, and disrupt existing industry business models is by first generating the high-quality raw material—the powerful insights—that can serve to trigger those ideas. And the great news is that your company can now deliberately and systematically discover such insights using The Four Lenses methodology described in my new book.

Join me this coming Thursday, March 26th, from 12 Noon till 1pm Eastern Time (US), for a free live webinar to discuss just how to use The Four Lenses of Innovation to provoke new radical thinking inside your organization. Discover the power of this systematic methodology for blasting away common assumptions, spotting and exploiting nascent trends, leveraging underutilized resources, and addressing previously unmet customer needs. It can help you and your company to come up with the kinds of insights and ideas that have the potential to drive dramatic new growth and perhaps even revolutionize your industry. You can register for the webinar right here.

Image credits: Rowan Gibson TM, Wikipedia.

Rowan Gibson is recognized as one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on innovation. He is the internationally bestselling author of 3 major books, an award-winning keynote speaker in 60 countries, and a co-founder of Innovation Excellence. His latest book is The Four lenses of Innovation.  You can follow him on Twitter @RowanGibson or connect via

Rowan Gibson




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