Why Big Ideas Fail

Everyone seems to know that the reason some ideas fail while others succeed is “implementation”—but what, specifically, makes the difference between an innovation achieving maturity and fizzling out before it hits adolescence?

If you’re an entrepreneur, an intreprenuer, or a leader in charge of launching new work, you may have done some homework and found that plenty of sources have taken up the question of innovation failure. They tend to look at product innovations in specific markets and compare those that have succeeded with those that have failed (say, the Apple iPod versus the Microsoft Zune), and evaluate the ways that each developed, launched, and scaled their products.

These are all very helpful if you’re trying to create a product. But what if you want to change something more nebulous like your company culture, or how your company goes about executing its work?

A Compelling Vision Only Goes So Far

If you’ve followed much of Outside Angle’s work, you know that we think in terms of a framework that divides the work required to accomplish anything into four actionable categories: vision, process, problem-solving, and relationships. We use this framework because it creates a way of looking at any change question and breaking it down into strategies and actions that work—or evaluating what didn’t work before and should be modified in the next effort.

Big ideas usually emerge through vision. Some problem or opportunity serves as the crucible for an innovative idea, and it begins to take shape in the mind of a leader, or in the discussions of a team. Over time, the idea grows into a story that matures when it has enough color and texture that its authors can see, hear, and feel what it will be at fruition. Often, their clarity and enthusiasm begins to engage and excite others, and the decision to work toward that vision becomes a foregone conclusion.

Imagine something you have envisioned so thoroughly that you believed it would become real, and you felt so passionately that you couldn’t help but share it with others (perhaps you wanted to write a book, run a marathon, become a neuroscientist, launch a podcast, win the lottery…?). The vision for big ideas can get us in trouble, but usually not because the outcome is vague or uninspiring.

Breakdown Point 1: Process

Things frequently begin to fall apart in process. Part of the problem is a strong tendency to skip over the design of the process and go right to the roadmap. What does it mean to “design a process”? Designing a process requires as much big picture thinking as developing a vision, and it means stepping back and thinking about the nature of how to get from where we are to where we want to be.

If you were to take a trip from Denver to Los Angeles, you might be inclined to pull out your Rand McNally and find the best way to connect the highways between Colorado and California. But you have many possible ways of getting from point A to point B. You could drive, but you could also fly, or take a bus, or bicycle, or walk. You’d need to take several factors into consideration:

  • What kind of time do you have available?
  • Is the goal to get there fast or to enjoy the view along the way?
  • How much money do you have available to make the trek?
  • And are you fit enough to walk 1,070 miles?

This part of the work need not be droll, and in fact it can be a critical opportunity to take a true accounting of what investments and tradeoffs are required to achieve a vision long before implementation begins. It is a way of establishing a set of shared expectations and goals for the journey from now to the future so that, when the initial plan inevitably hits setbacks, you know how to keep going. It is nevertheless, one of the most common points of failure among otherwise promising big ideas.

Big ideas fail when leaders don’t embrace the strategy behind process and skip over the work of designing a process for getting everyone, together, from the trailhead to the destination.

Breakdown Point 2: Relationships

Sometimes vision and process are well considered, and especially among seasoned leaders, well articulated in advance. But taking the time to articulate something and actually building the relationships that will make it possible to execute are two extremely different activities. Relationship building is among the most neglected leadership activities because building relationships is not a task to be accomplished, but an investment to be tended.

This is not “networking” (which can be valuable, but also kind of gross). Rather, it is taking the time to understand and connect with stakeholders such that one can be sure they understand the vision and the philosophy behind the process for how it will be accomplished (we call this “vision for the process”) and also understanding the person in terms of how they might relate to that process and can contribute.

Big ideas fail when leaders don’t take the time to build and invest in relationships before, during and after the change effort is in progress.

Breakdown Point 3: Problem-solving

Some visionary leaders are so good at winning their team’s embrace of their vision that everyone founders as soon as something in that vision becomes untenable. Problem-solving is not simply a matter of putting out fires that emerge along the way (people depart, supply chain dries up, etc.). In fact, putting out fires isn’t solving problems; any firefighter will tell you that the job isn’t done when the fire is out. (The job is done when the source of the fire is identified and remediated.)

Instead, problem-solving is more like the legal concept of the “blue pencil doctrine”: the vision, having undergone some initial implementation, can be refined and narrowed based upon what has been learned from implementation efforts so far. The whole vision need not implode if something turns out to be inaccurate or impossible, but the ability to revise it requires that everyone hold the vision with enough flexibility to make changes when they really are necessary.

Big ideas fail when leaders lack the fortitude to evaluate and refine their visions and processes along the way.

Give Your Big Idea a Chance to Succeed

If you’re excited about a new big idea, but concerned about how to maximize the likelihood that it will succeed, consider digging into what “implementation” will look like in terms of vision, process (including vision for process), relationships and problem-solving, and build your strategy with actions in each category in mind.

If you’re conducting a post-mortem for a failed implementation, consider this framework as a structure for your autopsy: Which domain was weakest? How can you correct that going forward?

Learning of this type will better prepare you to help the next big idea soar beyond the vision, and actually take root and begin to come to life.