What's the Big Idea?

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There has been a lot of chatter lately about big ideas. From Google’s “Moon Shots” to Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, entrepreneurial innovators are challenging themselves and the market to think big. This has not always been the sole province of the entrepreneur. I had the privilege of working in Bell Labs for a couple of years when the scientists and engineers there were working on technology that was ten times as powerful as what was currently in the market. They were unconstrained in their pursuit of ideas.

Big ideas serve an important purpose. They cause us to think about problems differently. The image above is of a proposed subway system for Austin, TX. Anyone who has sat in traffic in this city will immediately get the appeal of this concept. Will it happen? Maybe not, but the proposal represents a big idea that will impact the dialog and define the range of what is possible.

Since the mid-1980s, the share of total R&D dollars in the United States spent by large corporations has fallen from over 70% to under 40%. This shift has paralleled the rise of the venture capital industry as small company spending share has grown five-fold. It is time for our large, established enterprises to get back in the big idea game.

This is one of the roles of the Chief Innovation Officer; to sponsor and nurture breakthrough innovation initiatives. Ideas that are ten percent better may have a place in our investment portfolio, but we need some crazy stuff in there as well if we are to achieve substantial growth from innovation.

The challenges facing society are enormous and our largest corporations have the resources to solve big problems. What they need is someone to push for big ideas and then provide air cover for the time and investment required to accomplish breakthrough solutions. This takes both courage and brains – two qualities of the ideal Chief Innovation Officer.

What’s your big idea?