“I welcome and seek your ideas, but do not bring me small ideas; bring me big ideas to match our future.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

You’ve seen it play out countless times. Someone delivers a pitch for an initiative or a project, then freezes when the inevitable question comes: “What’s the ‘big idea’?” The response is typically what we refer to as the proverbial “pig staring at a wristwatch.” An empty glance, a stupefied expression, a general look of confusion. But no answer.

More often than not, we don’t take the time to define the “big idea” before scheduling a meeting and building a PowerPoint deck. We have an inkling of an idea, but fail to determine if the idea is truly a game changer or just – as Christopher Dougherty, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, aptly coined – “conceptual vaporware.”  Instead, we rush to our moment of glory, oblivious to whether our brilliant idea is just a minor iterative change or something more meaningful. And in that moment, we can’t explain the idea in compelling terms, so even if it is an earth-shattering innovation of otherworldly proportions, no one is listening.

Moving from Vapor to real change

So, what is a “big idea,” and how do you define it?

First, a truly “big idea” will disrupt the status quo. Some will argue that a “big idea” must represent a paradigm shift – a concept first defined by physicist Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, as a fundamental change in the basic concepts and practices that guide a specific discipline. True paradigm shifts are incredibly rare, so it’s far more likely that your “big idea” will spur real change, but on a decidedly lesser scale. It will almost certainly render an existing function, process, or system obsolete, something that will simultaneously excite and upset people, usually more the latter than the former.

Second, a “big idea” will challenge our foundational assumptions. It will spur cognitive dissonance, what social psychologist Leon Festinger described in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance as the discomfort triggered by a situation in which a person’s belief clashes with new evidence. That discomfort – which derives from disrupting of the status quo – will stimulate widespread, often emotionally charged debate. Real change is hard, real change is uncomfortable, and real change upsets people.

Third, a “big idea” necessitates buy-in from across an organization – vertically as well as horizontally. The status quo exists for a reason, and when an innovative idea challenges it, the “system” will inevitably push back. The degree of socialization required to implement a “big idea” is one of the key indicators that it represents more than just a redrawn organizational chart or a rewritten mission statement. It reflects a cultural shift in the organization, a shift that only occurs with widespread acceptance of the proposed change.

That’s the big idea. It’s not complicated, but it is important.

Note: A special thanks to War on the Rocks founder and CEO Ryan Evans for kick-starting this conversation.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.