Big Ideas and Great Ideas

Seth Godin, in the Startup School podcast, said something like that all business non-fiction books can be read in 5 minutes. I wish that were literally true, as I work through the stack of books I need to read to stay current with the North Creek Mailing list (1 Book, 1 Tool, 1 Idea, every Thursday).

But the kernel of the idea is that a good business book is built around a single Big Idea. Two Big Ideas mean the reader might miss both of them. So the author, the editor and the publisher make sure the stories, the data, the frameworks - the whole book supports one Big Idea.

As a businessperson, finding the Big Idea in the book shouldn't be hard. The reason the book is 250 pages instead of 250 words is that the Bid Idea needs to be (a) sold to the reader, and (b) translated for the reader.

You can save a lot of time and skip the sales section if you grant the thesis, the Big Idea of the book. Let's figure out how to apply the book to me! But if you are unfamiliar with the Big Idea, you may need to go through the process of being sold, so that you can answer the objections others will put in front of you when you start to sell them on the Big Idea.

If you are not in a senior management role, the Big Idea may not be that much use to you. Without the authority to make changes, implementing the Big Idea might be out of your reach. Is it a waste of time to read the book?


Once you understand the Big Idea, the sales process, and the translation process, you can filter that out and look for the Great Ideas the author has included in the book. Great Ideas are practical techniques or approaches that are used by the author to support his or her Big Idea. They are not Big enough to support a whole book, or broad enough to build a whole company around, but they can bring huge advantages to situations where they are relevant.

A Great Idea is not universal. It may not be helpful at all in your circumstances. But having that Idea in your mental toolbox may come in handy when a new situation arises.

Great Ideas are often illustrated in stories or case studies. Since they are situationally relevant, they are easier to communicate within a sample situation. Whenever the author tells a story, look for the Great Idea that is being explained or supported.

Sometimes Great Ideas are frameworks, visual tools, or ways of thinking about a problem. Whenever there is an illustration in a book, it's a clue that there is a Great Idea there. Many analysts love to combine two adjectives, make a grid, and create 4 quadrants. It is immediately apparent that you want to go up and to the right. That grid may be describing a Great Idea.

Great Ideas don't require a lot of authority to implement. You can start trying out a new way of analyzing a problem immediately. You can go to work, watch a process, and start placing it on a grid within a day. Companies are usually managed according to a small set of these Great Ideas, communicated explicitly or implicitly throughout the organization.

As you read a book, keep a notebook handy. Make a page just for the Big Idea of the book. Note the sales process the author uses to sell you on the idea. Note the target audience the Big Idea is translated for. After you've finished the book, see if you can write a paragraph describing how the Big Idea could be translated for your company.

Then make a whole section of your notebook for the Great Ideas in that book. Every time you encounter a technique or approach that the author uses to solve a problem, write it down on a new page. Note the kind of problem the Idea solves. Draw the picture if there is one, or summarize the story or case study. Then spend a few minutes translating the Great Idea to your situation. Don't worry about the whole company (unless you are the CEO). Instead, apply the Great Idea to your work life, right now. If there is no immediate application, leave it blank, but make a note of the problem type. When you encounter that problem type in the future, your notebook will contain an approach that has worked for other people in the past.

If you are a manager, imagine if your people were creating and sharing notebooks full of Big Ideas and Great Ideas. Imagine if there was the opportunity for people to filter those ideas up to their leaders, so that the whole company could learn. Great companies coalesce around a few Big Ideas, but no company can ever have enough Great Ideas in its toolbox. North Creek Consulting will partner with you to install this approach into your company. Starting with the classic business books, your people will be exposed to Big Ideas that will expand their understanding of the market. They will also start to pick up Great Ideas that can give your company marginal improvement in lots of areas at the same time. You're only one person - get more people reading, learning and growing. Partner with me and let's turn your company into a Learning Organization.

Excited to keep learning,

Professional Learner
North Creek Consulting

Categories: Books , Methodology