How to Make Your Big Ideas Happen

The start of a new year is a popular time to resolve to behave differently. Last week, several sources published a list of the most purchased books across genres, and James Clear’s Atomic Habits was among the top five in three different categories. This is great news for Clear and his (excellent) book about habit change, but if most Americans are reading a mere four books per year and those who are buying this particular book are searching for insight on how to change, it’s reasonable to ask: Are people really reading this book or merely aspiring to do so? And if they are, are they really following its advice, or merely aspiring to do so? (Hint: This book was originally published in 2018.)

The beautiful thing about resolutions is that they’re borne from an optimistic vision for the future, a belief in the promise of possibility. And the downside is that such visions (spoiler: Atomic Habits, should you finally read it, will tell you more about this) too frequently focus on the outcome and omit the process. We think about the healthy body, but not the exercise. We think about the robust client pipeline, but not the multitudinous pitches. We think about the transformational business idea, but not the work to bring vision, process, relationships and problem-solving into balance to make it a reality.

Big Ideas are ones that, by nature, are complex and whose path forward is not obvious. That doesn’t mean they can’t happen. Indeed, Big Ideas regularly do make it beyond the aspiration stage, and that occurs when they are first broken down into the processes and systems required to make them happen. If you want to move your Big Idea from aspiration to reality, here are four places where you can shift your attention from the compelling outcome to the steps you’ll need to take on the journey.

Get Clear on Where You’re Going

As I’ve discussed before, vision is essential—but it is not enough. A good vision is clear and compelling; it is detailed and accessible to those who need to internalize it; it so close to reality that you can almost touch it. It feels like an inevitability. And yet, you must constantly return to the vision. Reminding yourself and your team of your vision and ruthlessly assessing your progress toward it is the single most powerful tool available to you as a leader when it comes to motivating and inspiring your team and driving progress. This applies in any change setting. When you or your team believe you can’t keep going, you’ve run out of steam (or resources), or you’re not moving in accordance with your planned timeline, returning to the vision is the most effective way to reassess and re-energize. It is also a way to help ensure that you’re being honest with yourselves about your priorities; if the vision is no longer compelling, or no longer makes sense relative to what you have learned in the intervening period, revisiting your vision will help you make the best choice about the next right thing.

Get the Right People on the Bus

Finding the right people for your team is likely the most challenging and important thing you should be doing as a leader. Yes—the talent landscape is absolutely fraught; workers’ priorities are shifting, willingness to conform to leaders’ preferences and proclivities are declining, and bias is easily introduced into a process that can make your team look like a bunch of copies of you. Accept this challenge as the core mission of your role. Hone your skills and dedicate your time accordingly. Even if you are envisioning a Big Idea that won’t generate revenue right away (or ever), understand that you cannot realize a Big Idea alone. You need a team—of talented employees, partners, or champions. Decide who they are (What key skills do they have? Do they have specific relationships? Do they have the ability to complement your shortcomings?) and find them. Share your vision. Convince them to join you. Pro tip: Name your values and do absolutely everything in accordance with them. That specific practice helps you trust yourself because you know what to expect from your own behavior and decision-making, and it also helps you build trust with your team because they can expect the same.

Do the Work

Once you have the right team in place, the work needs to be organized. Our team calls this “process”—but truth be told, that word has so much baggage that we sometimes want to scrap it. Process isn’t just the stuff of flow charts and checklists. Process is about working creative tension to get from where you (really) are to where you want to be. Process is what gets you from your couch to the Everest basecamp without running out of food or oxygen (or getting arrested by Tibetan police). Process is most functional when it is tightly couple with problem-solving: the art of recognizing when things aren’t going according to plan and making the right choice about how to proceed. Critical note: Doing the work doesn’t mean that you personally must Do All the Things or that you should obsess over everything being done exactly as you would. On the contrary, “do the work” means prioritizing the work that only you can do.

Assess and Improve

Our team at Outside Angle helps people and organizations undertake change—not to transition from something designed to be stable over time, but to something with dynamism and antifragility built into its DNA. We believe the pace of change for everything around us is increasing and that means the systems and structures we create need to evolve accordingly if they are to sustain over time. To do so, we don’t invoke some sort of metaversal sorcery (yet). Rather, we help teams develop the relationships and capacity to take on hard things and create and facilitate customized progress monitoring cycles that make information transparency and accountability an organizational norm. If that all seems simple, good. It is simple. But alas, simple and easy are not synonymous here. That’s where your leadership comes in.

Be relentless in your commitment to assessing and improving. Evaluate progress toward your vision regularly, and ruthlessly name and address cases where vision and action are misaligned. Don’t forget to celebrate progress and keep your tone aligned with your values; you’re playing an infinite game when you’re building a Big Idea and that means you must constantly cultivate motivation, commitment, and resolve in yourself and your team.

Make It Happen

It is finally 2023, and the last two years have been some of the most challenging and unexpected of our time. During that time, many leaders have had to make hard choices about shuttering previously promising businesses and shutting down their own Big Ideas before they had a chance to thrive. But others were able to respond to the urgent needs of the time, and even launch and grow Big Ideas they never before thought possible. This new year presents an opportunity for leaders in every position to consider which Big Ideas are worth undertaking and make the investments that will bring them to fruition. Even though Big Ideas are enormous by definition, they become more than an aspiration when you break them down into manageable steps and take progressive action each day.

To borrow from James Clear, your task is to build the systems that will enable your success, and then build your practices into the work you do every day. What’s the vision you will repeat to yourself as you proceed—and who else will you share it with in 2023?