Why Your Business Needs a Big Idea

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to reach an ambitious goal: land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade. Although many believed the mission could not be achieved, Kennedy succeeded in changing the narrative. Instead of dismissing the idea, scientists accepted the challenge and met the deadline. The vision—the big idea—set other ideas in motion.

As small businesses around the country plan for 2011, many are focused on simply surviving. What's lost is the big idea. Your business needs a moon shot goal that will fuel its journey for the next decade and inspire your employees, your partners, and you. In my work, I hear plenty of small goals for the next year—but few moon shots. "We hope to avoid layoffs" is not a moon shot.

In 1976, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were fiddling with electronics and assembling circuit boards in the spare bedroom at Jobs' parents' home in Los Altos, Calif. (Yes, their company, Apple [AAPL], started in a bedroom before moving to the kitchen and then to the proverbial garage.) At the time, personal computers were intended for engineering hobbyists, not general consumers. Jobs and Wozniak shared the vision of making computers accessible to everyday people. That's a moon shot. The big idea inspired Wozniak's best engineering efforts, leading to creation of the Apple II, the best-selling computer of its time.

Face it: A goal to increase sales by 2 percent next year isn't going to inspire your team. Your employees want to know how you're going to change the world. A big idea has better chances of becoming related if it contains three components when articulated to its intended audience: boldness, specificity, and consistency.

1. A big idea is bold. Great visions inspire. During the research for my book about Steve Jobs, I asked technology analyst Tim Bajarin about lessons entrepreneurs can learn from Jobs' success. "I do believe there is such a thing as dreaming the dream of a grand vision," Bajarin told me. "Great entrepreneurs are focused on today, but the most innovative have a road map of where they will be tomorrow."

2. A big idea is specific. Kennedy set a deadline to reach the moon, which contributed a lot to its success. An ambiguous idea such as becoming the "best-of-breed solution provider" means very little. It's not inspiring. Nor does it give employees a specific goal to reach.

3. A big idea is consistent. A big idea that's not communicated consistently stands little chance of sparking action in others. When I interviewed salesforce.com (CRM) founder Marc Benioff for a previous column, he said that his big idea had been "the end of software." It was bold, specific, and communicated with consistency. The statement appeared everywhere—on his website, in ads, in presentations, and on a laminated card that every employee was encouraged to carry.

That little extra makes the difference between ordinary and extraordinary. Make 2011 the year of extra. Begin with a big idea.

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