Monday, December 03, 2007

Book Review: Big Think Strategy

I've had the good fortune lately to get to read a lot of new books on management and innovation, courtesy of the authors and their publishers. I've just finished a new book that will appeal to a number of innovators, especially those pushing their organizations to take on bigger, risky new projects. The book is entitled Big Think Strategy and is by Columbia business school professor Bernd Schmitt.

Schmitt is really interested in helping firms shake off the old focus on smaller, more incremental products and projects and seek new, disruptive thinking. He distinguishes this by calling it Big Think as opposed to Small Think. According to Schmitt, the differences are that Big Think is:

  • About creativity and leadership
  • About Visionary leadership
  • About Bold ideas and actions
  • About integration across core ideas
  • About long term, lasting impact
Obviously, Small Think is the opposite of these concepts - safe, conservative, incremental, stovepiped and short term. So far, sounds a lot like other innovation books.

Schmitt uses GE and Jeffrey Immelt as an example of a firm that moved from traditional Small Think to Big Think. Immelt realized that GE could not grow quickly enough without innovation and Big Think, and challenged his direct reports to create three Imagination Breakthroughs each year. These are radically new ideas that must generate at least $100m in growth. Immelt regularly reviews these ideas and has set aside funding for these new ideas. That's putting the management talk into action.

Schmitt suggests that there are six tasks associated with Big Think:

  1. Sourcing "new" ideas
  2. Evaluating the ideas
  3. Turning the ideas into a Big Think Strategy
  4. Executing the strategy
  5. Leading the Big Think
  6. Sustaining Big Think
Each of these tasks is covered in a short chapter in the book. For those who are familiar with innovation or disruptive thinking, the first chapter will reinforce a lot of reading and research you may have done. As far as evaluation is concerned, Schmitt's advice is to first ask - is it a Big Idea, then look to see if it is feasible.

In the chapter on turning ideas into a strategy, Schmitt offers a framework for identifying how the innovation you've identified can be put into practice. Like most MBA style analysis, it's based on a two by two matrix.


The rest of the book looks at how to implement new strategies based on this framework. Basically Schmitt boils it down to:

  • Transcendence
  • Opposition
  • Essence
  • Integration
Transcendence offers something far beyond what has been expected. Opposition offers something that seems in contradiction to the expected order (producing the Mini when the prevailing auto choice was an SUV). Essence is reducing to the indispensable offering and having full control over those indispensable factors. Integration is bringing together concepts that were considered mutually exclusive. These actions provide the basis for choosing which Big Think Strategy will work best in your situation and competitive landscape.

The last two chapters of the book have to do with leading and sustaining a big change program. As you might expect, these actions require leaders with big visions and thick skins. They need passion for the Big Think Strategy and need to work not only with the quantitative data, but also with their gut instincts. It's hard for a consultant or a book to define all of the steps necessary to implement such a strategy, and what's really required is the dogged determination to stick with the program, what Schmitt calls perseverance.

I found this to be a great book to motivate any innovative thinker, but it is targeted at the senior executive leaders of the firm. Only they have the ability to engage and create dramatic change as is described in this book. One small quibble with the book is that it really doesn't address the cultural changes that would be necessary to make the types of changes Schmitt suggests are possible actually happen. Probably the largest barrier to the types of ideas Schmitt promotes are internal and bureaucratic. No CEO, no matter how visionary or how passionate, can overcome a conservative, slow moving, risk averse team without dramatically impacting the corporate culture.

This book belongs on the desk of every CEO. It's not just for those who want to change, but also for those who think change may be necessary. It has some excellent examples of organizations which have implemented a Big Think strategy and have succeeded in changing their business. It is a good book for advocacy of innovation and significant change for those firms mired in small, incremental changes who are rapidly losing ground to firms that are more aggressive and willing to take on more dramatic change.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:41 AM

3 Comments:

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