Picking the Big Idea

Most of us make things happen, get results, and deliver. But ask us if we’re focused on building our vision, on our big goals or if we even know what our big goal is, and what will likely follow is some combination of this: a big pause, or a look down at the carpeted floor, or talk of corporate handcuffs, or a nervous laugh, or a sudden change of subject.

Creative, entrepreneurial types of people are awesome idea generators, but we can be challenged to create focus rather than doing more. I wrote about this in the post, The Biggest Impact. The analogy was that this disbursed attention to many things resulted in something more like a field of flowers, rather than a Sequoia. Beautiful, but not Big. But what I heard from you is that we often don’t know how to pick the Sequoia — the big idea that can be seen from far away.

When work teams kill off options and pick the one thing to focus on, they have a better chance of winning against the competition. On a personal level, it’s not about being able to win in the marketplace as much as succeeding at being your biggest, best self. (And that may be mean in the marketplace, also) Focus gives each of us a better chance of chasing our dream, because we actually know what it is and are willing to put our energy towards that dream. That, at least, gives each of us a chance of living our dream.

10 Steps to a Fighting “Chance To Live Your Dream”:

  1. Create space. Brain research says we all make better decisions when we have space. None of us can make good decisions if we are conflicted, tired, or unsupported. When we are overspending, and have no financial reserves, we feel conflicted. Our challenge becomes make lots of $$ while ALSO trying to be passionate. Which is not to say you can’t design for both conditions; it just raises the bar for what make the list. This conflict limits choices. We can be tired because we’re in the middle of a lot of family drama. We can be in a relationship that doesn’t support us changing. None of us can make the best decisions in those conditions. Unwinding conflicts or fatigue might take a good nights’ sleep, or a yoga class, or a run in the sunshine, or a summer away in France, or going to Hoffman, or saving up a years worth of reserves. But resolve it you must.
  2. Figure out the Goal. For some, their purpose is to shape an industry, another must become a designer, another want a particular type of work environment, another wants a way to always be learning. Without knowing why you care, and what fuels you, you actually can’t make any decision. Jonah Lehrer, Barry Schwartz and David Welch have all written great books on the art of decision-making. Barry makes the point that having too many choices is actually our biggest challenge. Our way to deal with that is to know what we’re designing for. It can be multi-sided. (For example, it can be a quality of life, while contributing in a particular domain.) But it is not about what someone else wants for you. It is what matters to you, what you want to create.
  3. For Now. This is not to say your goal will be the goal forever. When we focus, we are not saying no to many other options. What we’re actually saying is YES to 1 thing, and NOT NOW to all the other things. You’re not giving up on the potential of many options. You’re just picking what you most want to focus on NOW. (Logging or tracking those other options so they can be there for later really helps comfort this worry.) Rather than thinking about the entire future of life, think about what 1 thing could I do really well that would make a meaningful difference in the next period of time (i.e. few years). Once you are done with that period of time, then you can look up at the horizon again and pick a new point to aim towards.
  4. Not About Being Perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect choice. You need to get over that. Schwartz has countless examples of how we spend time over what paint to choose or what dinner choice, and his big point for life is that you’ll never know perfectly all the choices and often good enough is good enough. What you need to do is figuring out what is right for you, and then be okay with that. Everyone else can live their life. You are designing for yours.
  5. Accept imperfect information. The underlying fear is that we’ll regret our selection; that if we can find out more or do more, the decision will get easier. That assumes the answer is outside you. That someone else can give you more information and that will help. Rarely is a decision about the information itself, but about what we want. Return to step 2.
  6. Don’t Fool Yourself. If you’re like Shaherose or other leaders like her, you will then say, hey I can also do this, and that (and that and that). No, really you can’t. It may be an hour here or an hour there, but it adds up and it’s a tax of psychic energy. If you’re going to big, you need to put the attention and energy in a dedicated area. People fear that those other opportunities won’t be there later, but life has a way of giving you many opportunities over time. And for all the people who feel offended you don’t have time for them, well, tell them (silently) you’ll be offended you don’t have time for your dream.
  7. Ask for Help. Figure out who could help you in this new direction and then surround yourself with those folks. If you are an entrepreneur, figure out who should be on your Board of Advisors and if they will help you shape your idea.
  8. Inspire Yourself. Sitting by oneself rarely does genius make. So make sure you are getting a regular influx of high caliber ideas. Whatever your domain, figure out who is the BEST in that space and either hang with them in real life, at conferences, or virtually.
  9. Set different Measures. Going for a big goal means that we don’t have the same scoreboard as when we are doing many things. We move from transactions or daily/weekly wins to a bigger outcome. We need to decide what we can measure, that show us we’re meeting our goal. Remember this is not about outside validation, but internal clarity. Which means you can decide what those measures are. (If we used the fitness analog, it’s not about a certain weight point but measuring healthy food choices, or volume, or activity levels or some combination of such things.) If writing, it’s not about whether this specific work will be a best seller, but whether I’ve done my best effort at writing 1000 words every day.  To focus on the far away horizon seems defeating but you can break down that journey into parts you can manage. Then call that the win.
  10. Finally, pick. Until you have picked, and been clear that you have picked to yourself, you actually continue to be ineffective. You hesitate, you pause. You hope for more clarity. But all that is doing is actually killing your energy to move forward. So the actual process of deciding and getting clear creates the power of going forward. You can reevaluate and analyze the decision, later. Decide you’ll stick to this path for x period of time. Without question, without doubt, and then go do it. And, for those that are saying to themselves, “this all sounds risky”, remind yourself the most risky decision is not making one. The people who say they want to work on their book but then also hold down their day job are really not picking. They have never said, I can do this, and so they never do. Actions follow decisions. And outcomes follow actions.

I’ve gone through the CEO to TBD transition this year very much using this methodology; I’m simply repurposing all my business lessons of MurderBoarding for personal strategizing. So even though I’ve written sort of a 10-easy steps language, please know …nothing I’m writing of is easy to do. Nothing. There is no template to follow, no outside validation that what you’re doing is right. It’s hard. It’s nearly painful. Because, it’s chock full of tough choices and tradeoffs and letting go of “what is” to create “what will be”.

But the alternative to this hard work is this: I’m not going to have a fighting chance at living my dream. Worse, I could be living someone else’s life or a joyless life. What I can say about this process … it is doable. I can’t share, yet, that my own application of this process is a “success” in any way I can prove to you but I’ve picked my big goal (actually 2 specific things that are compatible), and I’m allowed to look up again in 14 months (September 2012) to reassess.

Let me know what resonates/questions, challenges, et al. I welcome a dialogue, as always. But especially on this topic; this is the first time I’ve written on this choice process (ala MurderBoarding) in a personal context. So I am sure there’s gaps you can help me see.

I wish you all a fighting chance to live your dream by picking your big idea and going for it.

If you want to see the second post that followed this one, ie. process to focus, it is here.

13 Replies

  1. Hi Nilofer,

    Another enjoyable to read blog 🙂

    My biggest thing is to follow your blogs and be your student 🙂

    I’m glad to be the first to reply to this blog.

    My big one thing is to get PHD in organizational behavior! I like reading body language and guessing the next step people do! It gets crazy sometimes (like a guy who was sitting next to me picking his ear and try to smell it yak 🙂 I stll wonder why people do this but I’m sure there is. Logical explanation)

    Back to being serious, now how I peruse this dream when I have so many expectation from work and the family? It’s too hard as you mentioned in the article! What I’m doing is trying to equip my self with nice blogs like yours to at least make this dream alive in me as it’s fading away with other commitment 🙁


  2. By the way, I read a blog today in HBR which fits very well with your article and maybe that’s the answer to my query which is finding a white space to plan life

    This Space Intentionally Left White s.hbr.org/mOC9FH

    If one wants to focus on his big thing he should strategically plan for it!


  3. A professor of mine, Andre Delbecq, once said every innovator allows 10% space to create. Bill Gates is known for his bi-annual weekly retreat where he read and looked out the window. Others have their method to create white space. Business is not an innovators best friend.

    My point in the post about creating space is ALSO to recognize that there are “obligations” we sign up that limit our ability to navigate this ability to go big.

  4. Out of curiosity, what’s your biggest thing that you dream about doing and how do you plan to achieve it?

    I’m trying to make an analogy to follow!

    1. I really don’t want to make this site about me and my story. I host, and I offer content (if my examples help, that’s the point), but the idea is to enable a multi-threaded conversation. So people have suggestions for Khalid…

      If you read my “about me”, you can see I’ve had many dreams (like being an entrepreneur) and then built plans to achieve it. The HOW becomes “easy” once you know what you really want in life. Don’t look to my life to build the roadmap. Look to the post and within yourself to figure out what you want. It’s a better roadmap than just 1 example. A PhD is a how. Why do you want that? Ask yourself that….

  5. the picture of the trees at the top of the post … what did they need?

    space, yes, and adjusting to whatever came their way …

    but no goal, no measures, at no time did they need to see themselves as objects to be manipulated, nor did they ever see themselves as separate from everything around them ..

    my point is that “allowing” is as important as “doing”

    ….. and then, mostly unrelated, a cool quote from gregory bateson … “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.”

  6. Wisdom, Nilofer.

    All of these matter very much.

    I’ll call out #1 and #8, because I see could-be-amazing-leaders withhold from themselves space/time/grace and the finest company.

    And without #10, Pick – and Do – the rest create a sweet time but no accomplishment.

    I’ll be sending my exec coaching clients to this post.

  7. Excellent post Nilofer. My colleague John Steen always says that strategy is about making choices, and, most importantly, deciding what you won’t do. He’s talking about organisations when he makes this argument, but I think that you are making a great point here that it is equally important for individuals to make choices. Saying no is hard, because it seems like you’re closing off an option, but it’s essential.

  8. Great post , nilofer! I have started following your tweets after I read your HBR article.
    Few thoughts:

    These steps assume that you are at midpoint of your journey towards something big. You have known the markets well, and it’s time you shuffle your cards and focus on executing the best pick.

    But how do you find where you are in this journey?
    Also,with things moving at such a rapid pace, can one afford to focus on a single task? For eg. Google had an early lead in social network @orkut. They chose to focus on other areas THEN… And they missed the boat?

    I believe that we should be focusing .. But the hard part is to keep other items on radar and not loose track of them..You never know when you will need them for Plan B or C?

  9. Vimal –

    You raise such a great set of questions.

    One is when do you focus/pick? Is there a set point at which we know enough to pick? And the short answer is yes. Our careers are not about knowing enough to then pick one thing and then delivering on that over a 20 year horizons. Our careers (and perhaps broadening things to include life) is more like a journey. At any point, we can pick a path, go on it and then reach other forks in the road and make more decisions. I wrote this post for the people who are simultaneously trying to go on several paths at once and then feeling quite torn. As in, overwhelmed and dissatisfied, but also not clear about their own dreams. To accept imperfect information is just part of the equation. You can make the best decision you can at the time, and then make more decisions when you know more. But in the meantime, you can be present to the journey rather than focused on a specific performance.

    And the second question you raise is how do you stay alert to what is going on in the market. At a philosophical level, it is to say both focus on doing your work but to be mindful that things change. It is knowing what the conditions were that made you pick Plan A to even know if you need to revisit to Plan B or C. That’s what I write about in MurderBoarding (chapter 6 in New How)…you need to know WHY you picked a plan, it’s easy then to signal that things have changed and therefore know you need to adjust. Most people focus on the “what” and can’t explain the why and therefore it feels arbitrary that things need to change.

    Hope that helps.

  10. #6 is so important. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist, but I’ve improved 10-fold over the past several years. I remind myself what I once heard Carly Fiorina say “Almost perfect” is good enough. If you wait for perfect, you’ll miss the boat!

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