The Problem with Big Ideas

This past Friday I listened to my state’s top education official talk about the education bureaucracy’s Next Big Idea. This one is to raise the requirements a student must meet to graduate with a high school diploma in Oregon.

High standards are a good thing, especially if your vision for the high standard is something you use to drive change.

I’m engaged now in helping a client move from half a million dollars a year in sales to $2 million a year, which I believe we can do in two years. That’s a Big Idea, a simple and clear vision. We plan to use it to drive change in his firm.

So it was good to hear Susan Castillo talk about raising standards for Oregon K-12 education. At the same time, I couldn’t help hearing in her high words and enthusiasm, the echo of failed formulas and ambitious agendas from Oregon’s educational history. It also sounded a lot like Eric Sten’s failing effort, five years in, to “End Homelessness in Ten Years.”

Here is the bad pattern:

  1. Proclaim a Big Idea
  2. Ride the Wave of Enthusiasm
  3. Tinker Aimlessly with Implementation
  4. Watch Helplessly as Bureaucracy and Inertia Strangle the Big Idea
  5. Notice that the Big Idea is a Failure
  6. Distract from the Failure with a New Big Idea
  7. Repeat

This happens with management fads in both the public and the private sector. People expect a leader to have a bold vision for the future. Wanna-be leaders then meet this expectation with what they imagine a bold vision looks like.

At first, there’s no significant difference between a real vision and the fake sort – they both sound big, impressive, even inspiring.

It’s the next steps that really mark the difference. For a true leader, the vision is then turned into actionable plans, with goals, sub-goals, and people assigned to meet them. Those people are held accountable for meeting those goals, and may be replaced if they aren’t met. Simultaneously, the goals and the action plan may be re-assessed in light of what is learned in trying to implement them.

For the fake leader, the Big Idea is the end of the road – that was all they were after. Their entire goal was to get that initial rush of enthusiasm and good feeling. It’s a technique for manipulating emotion.

When these fake leaders succeed, it’s partly the fault of their followers for allowing themselves to be manipulated in this way – to continue to fall for one Big Idea after another, each one unrealistic, each one unaccompanied by accountability, and each one quickly abandoned when it proves to be a touch difficult.

When we see a string of unfulfilled Big Ideas from someone, it is entirely appropriate to call them on it, to hold them accountable for committing the great sin of leadership that Winston Churchill warned against – that of raising expectations or hopes that the leader knows cannot or will not be met.

Tagged with: ,