Where Did Your Big Idea Come From?

Ideas Don't Come From Your Head

Innovation methodologies and definitions of creativity both privilege ideas and place them at the beginning of the innovation process. Innovation methods from Design Thinking to Lateral Thinking are driven by having and carrying out big novel ideas.

Given that the linkage between big ideas and creativity has become taken for granted, the question: Why do we have the concept “big ideas are essential to innovation and drive the process?” — can seem absurd. But, where does it come from? And does it actually work?

In the western tradition creating and making in any form — whether a religious painting or the building of a farming cart was an art (ars) or a skill. (The modern idea of art as a distinct and unique practice was only invented in the 1700s. Today we still use this earlier notion of art in phrases such as “the art of baking”). This concept of everything from poetry to cutting lumber was a form of skilled making goes back to the ancient Greeks who understood all making as techne — something done by humans in opposition to what is done by nature.

Ars and techne are terms that designated a skill that when done with mastery was “inspired”. Being inspired meant having clear access to divine guidance. For the Greeks that happened via the muses and for the christian west that happened via god’s grace.

An Idea is Behind (or Inside) Everything

For us the details are not as important as:

What was the content and goal of this divine guidance?

It is gaining access to ideas — perfect ideas.

From these ancient Greek beginnings, divine guidance — inspiration — assisted us in uncovering a predetermined and ahistorical idea which was the true essence of what we were searching for.

Put plainly, we as human creators should strive to follow this three part plan:

  1. Gain access to a hidden essential idea
  2. Make ideas manifest in words and images
  3. And then work to make ideas real.

Human Creators follow a Three Part Plan: Inspiration, Ideation, Development

And right here we have the genesis of why we say today at the beginning of a creative process: “What is your big idea?”

It comes from a historical tradition where a big idea is necessarily what comes first and drives the whole process.

Truth and Creativity are Fundamental Opposites

But this is not the end of the story.

After all, what is so bad about striving for a big idea at the beginning of the process of creativity?

These hidden essential ideas being uncovered were considered manifestations of some fundamental truth.

And, truth, for the Greeks, meant it could not be changeable — after all two plus two cannot equal five tomorrow and still be true. Truth was something fixed and unchanging, and because it was unchanging it could not be material, tangible or part of our everyday world. In the world of our everyday lives, everything changes -- everything material in this world eventually decomposes and disappears. Thus ideas — the essences and truths that the western tradition sought to uncover were necessarily immaterial, and unchanging. And as immaterial ideas they acted as a type of plan or script that either nature or humans followed in the actual making of things.

And it is here we come to the first major problem that we as would-be innovators have with this model:

  • By definition radical creativity involves the production of something genuinely novel.
  • Something that is radically new is something that has not happened before.
  • Radical novelty to the degree it is genuinely novel cannot pre-exist as an ahistorical and unchanging idea.
  • This concept of novelty or creativity is simply not possible within this 2000+ year greco-christian framework.
  • For radical creativity the fully formed concept (idea) necessarily comes after the first manifestations of novelty

To live in a world that is ultimately unchanging reveals a mindset in which the highest human aspiration is not in making something new — or even of this world — but in copying perfectly something unchanging and otherworldly.

Could we just scrap the concept that big ideas inherently connect to some special realm of the fixed and unchanging, and still use them as a good starting place for creativity?

This is the critical question. And one which we wish to slowly answer, step by step, to fully get beyond this habit of “Ideas First” creativity.

The short answer is no — to do this fundamentally ignores the realities of a dynamic and radically open-ended reality.

Let’s continue...

In the Western Tradition Creativity is Digging, Peeling, and Ignoring

The process behind this model of creation is one of seeing through things (and ignoring them) to find what is behind them, of peeling off the superficial layers and digging down to uncover — all to find the hidden immaterial essence. We engage reality as something to see beyond and to strip away like the peeling of an onion.

Layers of creativity peeled back like an onion
Onion Model Demonstrates Creativity

And so we have a general culture that values:

  • Depth over surface
  • The immaterial over the material
  • Being over becoming
  • Thing over process

— and all of this leads to the near total focus on Big Ideas.

Ideas are Everything

We are those who gain access to the “mind of God.” And then once we have access these ideas flow into our mind as ideas that we can act upon.

Idea Process - prepare, ideate, plan, make
Ideas Following a Pattern

Same Pattern Different Time

It would be a mistake to think of this as simply a religious worldview, or an outdated mode of philosophizing, or a quaint, but interesting, historical anecdote. Two thousand year traditions don’t simply disappear. They are deeply sedimented in our habits, language, and infrastructure. The underlying logic of this story is still very much the underlying logic of how we understand and explain the invention of things and the functioning of nature.

  • Everything begins as a pure idea
  • This is a fundamental idea (big)
  • It is immutable and immaterial
  • This idea acts as a plan
  • Carrying out these ideas as predetermined plans is how everything comes into being
  • Making is reducible and reduced to the simple act of carrying out the plan
  • Making is the imposition of form (the idea) on passive matter
  • Anyone can make, if they have a good plan (and ultimately making is for the servants. Even material is a mere servant).

Once you recognize this model, you will see it is everywhere:

  • Physicists speak of knowing the mind of God when they discover a fundamental equation — even going so far as to imagine the existence of a singular unified theory of everything (The Plan) — that one equation that could explain everything.
  • Geneticists talk about genetics as the hidden plan inside each cell that the cell follows to make the next cell based upon the genes predetermined model.
  • Brain-storming session to generate the big ideas at the beginning of every design sprint.
  • Design and Architecture is taught as fundamentally as sophisticated drawing.
  • Design Thinking using empathy as inspiration towards ideation that will drive the rest of the process.
  • Asking artists at the beginning of the making process “so what is your concept?”

There can be no doubt that this model is very much alive and well today.

Do Ideas Equal Innovation?

But is it the correct way to understand creativity and reality in general? Does it have any actual validity?

The simple answer is no — it is based upon a set of outdated concepts:

  1. We live in an unchanging and closed universe
  2. Life operates by carrying out fixed plans
  3. Novelty happens in ideas
  4. Matter is passive
  5. Thinking happens inside the head
  6. Creativity is anthropocentric rather a fundamental feature of all reality

Despite this knowledge our historical habits persist — with ideation we are still mistakenly looking for unchanging essences, fixed mind-based ideas and near complete blueprints — and in doing so fail to see how reality all around us is complex, highly interdependent, historically contingent, operating in a bottom-up, and profoundly creative manner — with novelty emerging spontaneously where least expected.

Does this mean thinking in general or that all ideas are bad for innovation?

Not at all. Thinking — at least for us humans is critical to innovation (slime molds on the other hand are very creative without brains or thoughts). Thinking, sensing, feeling — this covers a very broad range of activity — all of which is critical to creativity. And novel ideas do eventually emerge during the creative process -- but they come much later, and work as one tool embedded in a process, and are never of a fixed form.

The issue is:

  1. Assuming that creativity involves needing a big idea at the beginning of the process and
  2. Imagining that this idea is a plan that if carried out successfully will result in novelty.

This model of innovation is untenable. This family of models of innovation are untenable.

So what is a better way to see the whole of the innovation process if it is not: Seek Inspiration, Ideate, Plan, Make?

We are curious – how do you approach innovation and creativity outside inspiration, ideas and immaterial plans? Please share below – we’d love to learn from you…


This is the second of seven articles critically deconstructing the concepts of creativity and innovation as they have historically developed in the west with the goal of proposing alternative approaches.

Part One we look at how creativity, in the sense of the making of something genuinely new, was not part of the western tradition until the mid 1800’s. And that for the previous 2,000+ years to create was to copy.

Part Two we delve into “Where did your Big Idea come from? We go on a genealogical journey to discover how we came to believe those big ideas are both the source and goal of creativity and innovation.

Part Three we unearth the overlooked "Thinking is not in your head" – Thinking, especially creative thinking happens in the middle of acting and doing.

Part Four we examine "The New Cannot be Seen or Thought" -- so how does the new emerge if it cannot be seen or thought?

Part Five is an examination of Reality is Creativity -- on creativity being a fundamental aspect of reality itself.

Part Six questions Creativity: “and what else can it do?” -- introducing the concept of affordances and its relevance to creativity so that you can be more creative and innovative.

Part Seven - Creativity is Less - dives deeper into affordances introducing constraints and how they are the unheralded secret to all innovation

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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