Oct 31, 2006

Footnotes to : the tyranny of the big idea

Some time ago, Russell Davies wrote a memorable post on the tyranny of the big idea. In it, he talked about how big ideas effectively behave like monopolies, making it difficult for other ideas to get in. The ideas that usually get shut out are the steady stream of small and refreshing ideas that would have otherwise driven up the interesting-ness score of a brand.

He instead recommends idea-buckets - nebulous entities that have the heart and the space to embrace the continuous stream of smaller ideas that keep the brand going. He ends the post with a list of instructions on how to get an idea-bucket for one's brand.

It's been a few months, but I have never stopped thinking about that post. To begin with, it  summed an essential truth that we see at work every day. We all believe in ideas, yet to our eternal puzzlement - ideas are sometimes the biggest enemies of other ideas.

More importantly, I was keen to seek and find an apt analogy for how this whole thing works. Russell himself grapples for an analogy in the post, leaving the reader (definitely me!) with an unignorable question - "Anyone got anything?"

I found the answer (and the analogy) I was seeking in a wonderful book called 'Life And How To Survive It' by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. In one chapter of the book, Robin Skynner describes the two basic modes the human mind functions in : open and closed.

When we are in the open mode "we open ourselves up to the world, take in new information, and let it change our internal maps to make them more comprehensive and accurate; so that they reflect even better how the world really is, and how we can work to get what what we want from it."

And "we move into the closed mode when some action has to be taken. We give our attention to achieving some particular goal. So temporarily we narrow our focus and stop taking in all the information around us."

Both the open and closed modes are essential to our functioning. But the problem arises when we have to switch from one to another. Moving from open to closed is quite easy (for most of us.) For eg. when you are looking for an advertising idea and find it, you automatically switch to crafting and executing it - a state where you aren't actively seeking any more new ideas.

But once in the closed mode, we find it difficult to relax and slip back into the open mode again. Essentially because "once we are in it, we are closed off to the kind of information that might jolt us out of it. It's like being on auto-pilot. .... we can't actually learn anything now. We can only add details to what we already know; but we need to be in the open mode if we're to change our ideas, look for new solutions, reassess our aims."

In my opinion, Russell's tyrannical big idea and idea-bucket are not two separate entities but instead two sides of the same coin. They both are the same big idea that's either stuck in the 'closed' mode and or is basking in the sunshine of 'openness.'

Like our minds, brands too find the switch from closed mode back to open mode much more difficult than the reverse. Which is why so many of these big ideas get stuck in a morass of consistency and monotony. By not taking in information from the outside world, the brand continues to believe and act like the idea still excites and works - long after the audience has left for home.

Alternately, open big ideas leave the brand in a state of perpetual sensitivity to the world around it. Any stimulus is thus dealt with a temporary switch to a closed mode and the execution of a smaller idea - immediately post which the brand again reverts to state of open-ness. (Imagine a graph that curves smoothly upward when seen from far, but upon close inspection is itself composed of tiny troughs and peaks - sort of like the property of fractals where it appears identical at different scales.)

Of course, when I speak of idea monopolies, open big ideas and closed big ideas - I do seem to be anthromorphising ideas. That life and their behavioural characteristics are in fact given to them by the container that holds them - the human mind. Our minds.

Which explains why the same big idea can behave 'closed' and then switch to an open state at a later date. The Power Of Dreams, in my opinion, is such an idea that was pried 'open' by the efforts of W+K, London.

And what of the instructions that Russell imparts to get oneself that idea-bucket? All of them, in my opinion, do only one thing. Besiege you to keep your mind open.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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