Virtual Learning Resource Centre

The big idea

Bookcover: The big idea

by Robert Jones, Harper Collins Business, 2001.


Organisations need their own ‘big idea’ by which they stand out from others. They need an emotional magnet to draw staff and customers; this is discovered by collective instinct rather than by research. 50 big ideas are summarised.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in September 2001)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

Today’s marketplace, declares the cover of this book, is a war of ideas. ‘Unless you stand for something, you won’t stand out.’ To be successful in the new economy, organisations need something more substantial than ‘vision’, something deeper than ‘brand’. Only a radical, emotional big idea that is widely shared will give you a competitive space, the high ground that your rivals can’t invade.

Robert Jones is a leading consultant who advises chief executives of national and global corporations on how to create and manage their big idea. The emotional side of business fascinates him - the way that most business people are driven by something more complex than merely the desire to make money. He believes that the spirit of the new economy goes much deeper than the internet and e-business. It is a new climate and a new mood that recognises the power of emotion and challenges complacent firms. It destroys old categories and brings customers and employees together in completely new kinds of community. It’s a new and better capitalism, believes Jones.

His book draws on interviews with leaders in 50 organisations that possess some of the world’s biggest ideas. These include mobile phone operator Orange, whose big idea, say Jones is ‘optimism’, and IKEA whose unique concept is ‘democratising design’. The aim of the book is to show how you might find, communicate and manage your own big idea.

But why do you need such an idea? The reason, Jones tell us, is that the things that people buy, both products and services, are becoming increasingly similar and easier to copy. The ‘devastating’ result is that, in the absence of economic differences, emotional logic becomes the single most important business driver. The consumers of the future will expect and demand choice, but that choice will be more between different emotional worlds than between different product features. The employees of the future will also be more independent-minded, more mobile and readier to change job (or even continent). They will join and help shape organisations that reflect their own values. The investors of the future will be less obsessed with short-term shareholder value (so Jones believes), intangibles will matter more and organisations will be assessed on their social and environmental contribution. Tomorrow’s successful companies will be those that ‘nourish life’ best.

Big ideas have two things in common. They are not just cerebral; they create a special and palpable spirit in the business. Importantly, they make an encounter with the organisation a distinctive experience. Secondly, they appeal to people inside and outside the organisation. They dissolve the boundaries between customers, employees, suppliers and investors, so they all become members of the same entity.

A big idea is necessary because some of the means by which we have steered organisations in the past no longer work so well. We are living in a world of frenzied searching for the next big idea in business. Our interest is not in settling things but in unsettling them. People are also increasingly difficult to categorise by social background, job or age. The desire everywhere is to be radically different from the past. One result of the desire to keep everything open and not to close down possibilities is that the whole notion of strategy is coming under question.

A new type of consumer is leading the rebellion against sameness - the ‘consumer with attitude’. These are people who seek ideas that are concerned with more than just need. Their search is for ideas that transform a high-quality product or a well-delivered service into something more.

As shown by other books reviewed recently on the Virtual LRC (see, for example, The Soul of the New Consumer and Right Side Up), a fundamental shift of power to the customer is occurring as we move from a world of selling to a world of buying. It is no longer about pushing things out to people or about light and breezy sales messages that everyone can now see through. It is about attracting people in, so that they can then pull out the things they want.

Organisations therefore need an emotional magnet, something to bring people in, and make them stay around. The magnet has to be more than quality or service: these are the minimum, a starting point only. The consumer with attitude likes organisations who themselves have attitude. Organisations now need to propose a whole emotional world - something people can react to, something they can choose to reject or to join. The big idea does not need to be about newness or novelty, although it can be. It does not have to be about history or tradition, although these can be powerful. What it must do is excite and inspire people and answer their craving for a new kind of experience. It must suggest that, by making a relationship with this particular organisation, they are entering a new and better world that offers something different from the same bland product or service that everyone else gets. The consumer-with-attitude is not looking for value for money, but values for money.

With the huge choice of products and services available, consumers now want someone who shares their values to guide them towards the things they like. Firms become ‘navigators’ who help consumers find the right product or service for them at the right price. Navigators cross the divide between seller and buyer to put themselves on the consumer’s side. But any organisation that wants to be a navigator has to win the deep trust of consumers. They may try to respond, for example, to consumers’ increasing need for authenticity. On the other hand, to build the required affinity with consumers, an organisation has to be selective. It has to decide whom it wants as its constituency and to be clear whose values it shares. People need to know what it likes and dislikes, and what it is for and against. It cannot be all things to all people. In other words, it must stand for something.

Never before, says Robert Jones, have people looked so closely at the source of things they buy - the people behind the products, their priorities, their methods, the things they stand for. This is an age of unparalleled organisational scrutiny. In other words, people want the right product or the right service, but they also want to know that there is an organisation behind it that thinks in the way they think, or even that is ahead of their thinking. They want an organisation that stands for what they stand for, something that is worth believing in.

How do we create a big idea? It cannot be conjured out of nothing, says Jones. A big idea is its organisation’s soul. Big ideas are found, not created, but there is no neat process for doing this. One of the problems is that big ideas are paradoxical: they are based on an organisation’s past, yet create its future. They describe the truth about an organisation but they also change it. The key to finding the big idea is to listen to intuition, to find without searching.

Big ideas are about the future. If they are not, they fail. Though big ideas depend on a view of the market, they do not grow out of market research. (Jones cites Richard Branson of Virgin who admits he sometimes irritates his staff by adopting one-off ideas suggested by a customer he has met - Branson says, ‘I don’t mind where ideas come from as long as they make a difference’.) Some firms form their view of the future by listening to trend-watchers, employing their own futurologists, or using techniques like scenario planning. Almost all think about the future by reflecting on their own history. Every big idea is deeply rooted in its organisation’s past - like Hewlett-Packard’s rediscovery of its original big idea - ‘invention’.

Does every big idea need to be produced by a charismatic leader? No, says Jones, most big ideas are a collective product, and become a social property, although the collective effort does benefit from the presence of an individual who is prepared when necessary to shape and cajole. The boss does not have to be its immediate parent, but should be present at the birth.

Because it is more matter of instinct than research, it need not necessarily take a long time to find the big idea. An hour of productive reflection by the firm’s senior team can often generate more ideas than months of interviews, workshops and symposia. It is rare, however, for organisations to find their big idea straightaway. It often involves a more tortuous process of circling round, taking two steps forward and one step back, discarding something and then coming back to it. At some point, most organisations will need to write down the idea, knowing that whatever gets written will be probably be inadequate and temporary. At a certain stage, there will be a critical moment at which supreme courage is needed - the courage to be on the edge, the courage not be all things to all people.

When the big idea - one that will change the world - has been found, there is still a long way to go. Now the challenge is to engineer a shift in ownership. What makes big ideas powerful is their multiple ownership by customers, employees, investors, and suppliers who all feel that the idea is theirs. Though a small group of insiders may conceive the big idea, it is that much wider community that creates it. There are many difficulties to overcome along the way, though. Ideas are fragile, and all sorts of ‘shadows’ darken the path. Dissonance, for example, occurs when the way that the organisation tries to put the idea across conflicts with what it’s trying to say. (BA's big idea, says Jones, is world travel but its name is still British Airways and its logo is still red, white and blue. It is now very hard to know what British Airways is about, he says.)

Another shadow is oblivion which happens when people don’t notice your big idea. The answer to this is to engage with people, to get under their skins, and provoke a reaction. And to do that through as many different communication channels as possible. This does not necessarily mean spending millions on blanket coverage but it does mean devoting energy to reaching the people who matter and seizing every opportunity to proclaim the idea.

People will instinctively resist new ideas if they feel that the organisation is preaching at them, or boasting to them. The only way to solve this is to communicate indirectly. Let people make up their own minds: that is what enables people to make the idea theirs. Enlist the help of time. A big idea is not a quick fix; it is a long-term investment. Even though the world is moving faster than ever, a big idea is a five-year, or even a fifty-year, project.

The big idea may certainly encounter cynicism. The only way to counter this is with integrity. The organisation must live the big idea. This starts with the leaders and the signals they send to the world. But it also involves, just as powerfully, all the ordinary things that happen day by day in an organisation.

Once an organisation has dispelled the shadows, exciting things start to happen. The idea is now owned by people outside as well as inside the organisation. The big idea has become folklore. Employees become enthusiasts and customers become advocates. And all their talk makes the organisation into a community, a club, or a society to which people inside and outside feel they belong.

Can the organisation rest on its laurels when it has found, communicated and created its big idea? Unfortunately not. Jones suggests that there are seven ages of a big idea:

  1. The hyperactive child.
  2. The awkward age.
  3. Grown up, but the world has moved on.
  4. Mid-life.
  5. An over-familiar face.
  6. Against orthodoxy.
  7. Culture shock.

The last two stages are particularly dangerous. A big idea, as it grows older, can become an unthinking orthodoxy within an organisation. It becomes the answer, not the question. When it becomes part of the orthodoxy of the society it operates in, it can lose its radical, nonconformist edge. The organisation, as a result, no longer stands out, because it no longer stands for something distinctive. The strength of organisations with a big idea is also their weakness. Strong cultures are risky things. Culture, in fact, is the enemy. The seventh age must therefore be a time of reorientation: reinterpreting the big idea in a way that questions the culture. So, in a real sense, the process is circular. Organisations with a big idea never get there. There is always more to do. That’s the source of their special energy, says Jones.

Jones concludes his book with a summary of the 50 big ideas that he has researched. For example, Saturn is not just about cars, its message is ‘harmony’ (Jones’ verdict: it ‘certainly resonates but do the products deliver it?’). Sony is not just about electronics, it is about ‘miniature perfection’ (‘a fascinating because unachievable idea’). Along with IKEA, top marks go to Apple (‘usability’), the John Lewis Partnership (‘a better form of capitalism’) and Virgin. The latter’s big idea is ‘iconoclasm’ - ‘a youthful idea that continues to be irresistible to an ageing population’.

The Big Idea itself stands out as lucid, persuasive and thought-provoking. It is highly recommended reading for all managers, but especially for top managers making critical decisions on the organisation’s future. It would make an excellent vehicle for a top team meeting that asks the questions: Is our idea big enough? Are we delivering it? Does it need reinterpreting?

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