How to have big ideas regularly

Wordtree big ideas session


Business has always needed strategic thinkers. And in today’s fast-paced, unpredictable world, it needs people to generate big ideas more frequently than ever before.

Because working and planning strategically is precisely that – the ability to have big ideas that keep your business ahead of the game, and even change the game altogether.

But unpredictable times can make teams, and even whole businesses, seek the safety of what they know. Which means they retreat into small thinking, adhering to processes and tinkering around the edges.

What is a big idea?

If you Google “How to have great ideas,” you’ll find a lot of content. But we think there’s a world of difference between a “great idea” and a “big idea”. A great idea might be stopping at M&S to get a meal deal on the way home from work. Or deciding to give everyone a Christmas bonus. Or re-organising a workspace.

A big idea, on the other hand, is one that changes the way people think, act and live.

There’s a belief that only super-creative people who walk around in a cloud of inspiration, wearing black turtlenecks and dark-rimmed glasses can have these kinds of big ideas. But this simply isn’t true.

Human beings are innately resourceful and creative. But like anything, you have to practise doing something a lot before you can get really good at it. So what are some of the things that will allow you and your organisation to come up with big ideas regularly?

These are the things that work for Wordtree:

Know there’s a box: What’s confining your thinking now?

Let’s use that horrible business expression, “Thinking outside the box”. You simply can’t do it if you don’t recognise that there’s a box in the first place. And what is the box? It’s basically any way of thinking, feeling or doing that you already have – like eating turkey at Christmas, working 9-5 or having a shower every day. None of these things are set in stone or governed by laws of physics.

Instead, the ways we think and act are all governed by social norms, habit, and belief systems. We like order, so we impose it on ourselves. Companies have accepted processes, people have long-established ways of moving through life (school, university, job, family, retirement) – and even the ways we think are guided by the systems we grow up in (religious systems, class systems, cultural systems etc).

At a high level, these are the boxes. And the thing with big thinking is that you need to accept that:

  1. A box is a box, and
  2. A box is not immutable
The Matrix poster

It’s a bit like in The Matrix, when Neo realises that everything he does and thinks is just a system.

This isn’t to say that boxes and systems don’t perform a useful function. But if you don’t recognise them as things that can be changed, you’re unlikely to be able to do any big thinking or come up with any big ideas.

So if you work for a pensions company, a box for you might be the belief that a pension is something you have to pay into throughout your life and that you can only cash in when you reach a certain age. The reality is, that’s just how pensions work in certain parts of the world. It doesn’t mean they have to work like that. Other countries do them in different ways.

At Wordtree, we like to think in terms of “taking a couple of steps back”. It’s our way of saying we’re looking for the box. What is it? Why is it there? Is it time to adjust it – or burn it down or create a new box?

Provide fertile soil for big thinking: Hoover up information

If you want to have big ideas, it helps if you know a lot of stuff about a lot of different things. Giving your brain plenty of food for thought provides fertile soil for big thinking. You certainly need to keep up-to-date about everything that’s going on in your industry. But you need to look wider too.

Johnny Five in Short Circuit

The wider-ranging your store of knowledge, the bigger your thinking can be. So reach for a completely different magazine than you’d normally read next time you’re in a newsagent. Don’t just always listen to the same podcasts – try new ones. Switch to a different radio station. Visit new places. Talk to new people. Go to new events. Watch documentaries. Read about different histories. And watch, listen and absorb.

Slowly but surely,all this information will settle in your brain and form networks ofassociations. So when someone in your clean air charity says, “Wouldn’t it befabulous if someone could invent a way of measuring X…” you’ll be able tothink: “Just a minute… why only this week I read about something similar to that in Koi Carp Magazine. I wonder if we could adapt that idea…”

As we seem to be going for film references in this post, you’ve got to be like Johnny Five in upload mode, in the 1986 classic, Short Circuit. All information, at some point, will become useful information.

At an organisational level, you amplify your ability to hoover up information if you employ lots of different types of people – and you make sure they all have a part to play in innovating and thinking. In other words, if you only employ white, middle class people, you’re only going to get white, middle class thinking. If you employ people with lots of different life experiences and backgrounds, you’re going to get a wonderful diversity of thinking too.

Be open to different ways of thinking: You may link ideas you couldn’t before

If you have fixed ideas about How Things Are and Should Be, it will be difficult for you to have big ideas. It’s also difficult to be open if you hide yourself away and make it hard for people and new things to reach you.

You need to be open to – and excited by – people, their views, different ways of working, different ways of thinking and seeing the world.

It’s exciting to find out that different cultures might eat what you eat for breakfast for tea. Or that colours or animals have different significance in different belief systems. Knowing some of these things will help you to consider fresh ways of approaching challenges.

Practice having ideas: Actively problem-solve

If something is a pain for you, think of ways to improve it. Should that coffee shop have a different queuing system? Could your TV remote control be improved? What’s up with the stupid pockets on your coat?

Make a habit of just thinking of ways to improve things. You don’t need to share them. But keep looking at the world around you as a place that’s ripe and open for big ideas.

The more used to problem-solving you get, the more confidence you’ll have when it comes to thinking big on behalf of your workplace.

Don’t force it: Meander and doodle

Society doesn’t accord anywhere near enough value to things like daydreaming, taking a refreshing stroll, idling on a sofa or having a long shower.

Ideas rarely come when you try to force them. But if you give yourself a change of scenery, plenty of fresh air – and time to do nothing especially – then the ideas will start bubbling up like little geysers.

Losing the screen can also be a really good way for ideas to surface. At Wordtree, we often use sketchpads, doodling different thoughts and the relationships between them on the page.

As counterintuitive as it may feel, if you want to have big ideas, have a little snooze or go for a walk.

Thinking differently means standing out: Be brave

Don’t be afraid of being the only person who thinks what you think. But before you share your thoughts widely, poke and prod them thoroughly.

Make notes of your thinking. Then challenge yourself. Would this work if..? Has anyone else tried this..? Is there any research out there that supports the way I’m thinking..? What could the world look like if we did things this way..?

If you can, give yourself a few days’ break from your idea and then go back to it. Does it still stand up?

And remember, unconscious bias is a thing. Just because you think something is a great idea doesn’t mean the foundations for your thinking are sound. So be brave enough to lay your own thinking out for examination.

Get a group of your colleagues together and say: “This is what I’m thinking, does it sound reasonable to you? Can you think of any way to poke holes in my thinking?”

This will help you refine and hone your idea until it’s ready to present to wider audiences – or decision-making audiences.

Get other people on board: Convince them your big idea is the real thing

I used to work for a guy whose approach to presenting new ideas was “Frighten and Enlighten”. It’s not a bad formula.

When you’re telling decision-making audiences about this idea – and trying to get them to buy into your thinking – it can help to explain what the world is doing about a particular situation right now… and what will happen if they carry on doing it.

The scenario you paint will show the likely consequences of continuing along a certain track.

Then, at the point when everyone is (hopefully) thinking, OMG, what do we do now? You reveal your idea. And you explain how it’s going to create a completely different outcome.

How do you do it?

If you do different things to keep inspired and full of ideas, please do let us know and we’ll share your approaches.

And of course, if you’d like us to do some big thinking for you, please get in touch.