This was Elaine's question for her suitors in the classic Seinfeld episode about her favorite contraceptive, Today’s Sponge, being discontinued. After hoarding a small supply she began to carefully ration them out, subjecting prospective boyfriends to an intensive screening process: How about your bathroom? Did you scrub the tub completely? And what about your sideburns?
She was only in search of the sure thing, the man certain to be spongeworthy.
Too many organizations manage big ideas the same way. They act as if the resources to invest new possibilities are in danger of being discontinued. They screen possible innovations so intensely that few, if any, ideas are actually approved. The review process rarely is transparent, and the criteria are often arbitrary or imposed by individuals as opposed to having been approved by an appropriate body.
Pursuing a big idea is an experiment. By the time it is a sure thing, it rarely qualifies any more as a big idea. And in experimentation, there will be setbacks, and what often will be seen as a loss or waste. That’s the only way individuals and organizations can discover what doesn’t work: by trying something and engaging in the process of discovery.
If that’s not acceptable to your company or association, then don’t pretend to be serious about big ideas. Like Elaine, you’re only going to use your resources on the most spongeworthy projects. So every now and then you'll get what you want, But most of the time you’re going to be celibate when it comes to innovating on behalf of your customers or members. And that seems like the least spongeworthy idea of all.
Acronym, ASAE & the Center for Association Leadership’s blog, has declared December to be Big Ideas Month and invited association bloggers to write about some of the big ideas contributed to its site or a big idea of our own. I plan on doing just that, but first wanted to contribute this thinking about the notion of big ideas in general and how we tend to react to them. I hope the spongeworthy comparison doesn’t offend readers’ sensibilities or cloud the point I am trying to make.