The Myth of the One Big Idea


Scott Cormode explains how change efforts often fail because we risk everything on one big idea. Innovation flourishes within systems that generate lots of ideas. And a leader’s task is to plant and water the seeds of change to see which take root and grow.

There is a giant redwood tree in my grandmother’s tiny backyard. Towering 60 feet tall, it has no business growing in a suburban neighborhood. There is, of course, a story. In the 1920s, when a man named Lester owned the place, he went to visit the redwoods. While there, he discovered a redwood seedling. He carried it home in a coffee can and transplanted it in his yard. For many years, he watered it while it struggled to put down roots. Then, when those roots hit the water table, the tree shot up until it became the tallest tree in the valley.

Innovation myths

Lester’s redwood is a metaphor for innovation, at least that is what the stereotype would tell you. But the stereotype is wrong. The standard story is that a lone genius — like Lester — discovers one big idea. It starts as a tiny seed. He nurtures it through hard times until it becomes a towering achievement. But all the research says that Lester’s brand of innovation is a myth. The Redwood Myth of innovation is a myth made up of many myths.

1. The myth of the lone genius

This myth is epitomized by Thomas Edison working in his attic. But Walter Isaacson has shown that most of these lone geniuses are really embedded in communities of laborers. Edison, for example, formed a team of engineers working side by side. As one scholar put it, the team created the innovations, and Edison created the team. He created a community of people all working together to turn out innovations. Innovation happens in community.

2. The myth of the visionary leader

Then there is the myth of the visionary leader, the person who rallies a people around an idea just as Lester picked up that little seedling. But, as Linda Hill and her team found, leading innovation cannot be about creating and selling a vision. Visionaries often tell people what to do without telling them how to do it. Innovation must also include a plan of actions.

3. The myth of the eureka moment

The patron saint of the eureka moment might be Albert Einstein, working with just his intuition, isolated in his lonely Swiss patent office. But Einstein himself debunked this myth. “Intuition,” he said, “is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience that comes from interaction with the ideas of others.” Walter Isaacson summarizes it in this way: “An innovation” he says, “usually comes not from an individual brainstorm but from a collaboratively woven tapestry of creativity.” For “only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt or a light bulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or garret or garage.” Ideas are not like one lone redwood tree. We will need a process for generating many ideas rather than risking everything on a single idea.

How ideas really grow

But there is something important about the Redwood Myth. It emphasizes that ideas grow. They are the product of planting and watering that are the essence of a leader’s work. They start small and vulnerable. They need care and the right environment. The problem comes in thinking that one tree stands alone. I would like to offer an alternative to the Redwood Myth.

1. Never invest in just one idea.

Ideas are like saplings: you never invest in just one. If you are a farmer who wants to raise trees for sale, you do not just grow one tree and hope it gets to be big. You plant rows of saplings. Some of the trees will die — as the parable goes. But from those rows you know you will get some excellent adults.

2. Innovation relies on the ability to regularly generate lots of new ideas.

Ideas are like saplings; you grow them in numbers. The currency of innovation is new ideas, not great ones. Contrary to conventional wisdom, 19 little ideas will yield more fruit than one big idea. And here is why. No idea is great at the beginning. It may be the seed of a great idea (a seedling, as it were). But rarely does a great idea come out fully formed. Great ideas are grown from small seeds; they do not hatch fully formed. So, the hallmark of an innovative organization is the ability to regularly generate lots of new ideas.

3. Having a good idea requires having lots of ideas.

Ideas are like saplings; you cannot know which one will grow into being a great idea. The innovation literature regularly repeats this, usually quoting Thomas Edison, who said, “To have a good idea, have a lot of them.” Edison built his lab around this idea of saplings or what Edison called “the rapid and cheap development of an invention” by creating “a minor invention every 10 days and a big thing every six months or so.” Or as another scholar put it, innovation only comes from a portfolio of ideas.

4. Measure the quantity not the quality of new ideas.

Ideas are like saplings; you measure them in quantity, not quality. Because we cannot know which saplings will grow into great redwoods and we cannot postpone evaluating our work until the ideas have grown, we measure innovation in numbers, not size, just as Edison did. He measured innovation in ideas generated per week, or in saplings planted. He trusted that the right nurture would turn those saplings into trees and that some of those trees would become towering inventions. We need a process that generates lots of ideas, all of them focused on the people entrusted to our care.

But that prompts the obvious question of how to nurture ideas so that they can take root. Google, for example, draws on the work of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, who described the need for a systematic process of branching and pruning — the companion to a Christian leader’s work of planting and watering. What Google means by that phrase is “trying a lot of stuff and keeping what works.” You do not put all your energy into one seed but instead nurture many ideas until you see which one will bear fruit. Ideas are like saplings.

Christian organizations tend to do the opposite: We tend to try one big (expensive and loud) plan. We announce it before it is fully formed, often with a logo and theme music. We put enormous pressure on the sapling to bear the weight of a mature tree. And when it does not take immediate root, our churches complain and abandon the project having learned the lesson that such innovation doesn’t work.

Lester had one tree and hoped it would grow. Lester got lucky, but we cannot bank on luck. Ideas are like saplings. If you want to have a great idea, then have lots of ideas. You never know which one will erupt into a giant idea. Innovative leaders value quantity over quality.

This material is reprinted from The Innovative Church: How Leaders and Their Congregations Can Adapt in an Ever-Changing World © 2020 by Scott Cormode, published by Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.

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About Author

Scott Cormode is the Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and the Fuller Youth Institute. He founded the Academy of Religious Leadership and the Journal of Religious Leadership. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he was previously on the faculty of Claremont School of Theology.

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