The 4 qualities of powerful ideas

What makes an idea powerful? That’s a question I’ve been pondering for the last five years. Powerful ideas have to be right, new, and big. But they have to be simple, too — or at least simple to express.

The realm of pure ideas is Darwinian. Some spread, some die. If you have an idea, you need to know what to do to make it better. That’s where my model comes in. You’ll want to improve your idea on four dimensions.

  • Is it right? How can you prove it?
  • Is it new? If not, what’s new about it?
  • Is it big? If not, how can you make it bigger?
  • Is it simple to express? If not, how can you make it easier to understand?

Here’s a picture of the first three qualities, showing what happens when you have some but not all of them.

big idea

Let’s examine what these qualities are and why you need them.

Powerful ideas must be right

Strangely, being right is not the most important quality of an idea. Wrong ideas catch fire all the time. But in the end, your idea isn’t worth pursuing unless it’s based in reality. (And morally, pushing a wrong idea is reprehensible.)

Why it’s important. To spread, an idea must be plausible and convincing. To do that, it has to be based in provable facts or trends. Big, new ideas that aren’t right are just dreams, with no basis in reality. If your idea is that people should give up their smartphones, you’re not going to get anywhere — the evidence is against you.

Why it’s not enough. If your idea is right, but neither new nor big, then it’s just trivia. It snows in Boston in the winter — so what? Trivial ideas can be helpful in everyday life, but they don’t generate influence.

How to improve it. Conduct research. Seek evidence. Disprove counterarguments. The stronger you can make your case, the more people will believe you.

Powerful ideas must be new

Maybe you came up with an idea that somebody already had. You might be able to steal their thunder, but most people will just see you as derivative. It may not be fair, but ideas that are new gain the most influence.

Why it’s important. New ideas get attention. And people who spread them get the credit. At the speed things move now, new is essential. If it’s not new, people will see your idea as a knock-off.

Why it’s not enough. If your idea is new, but neither right nor big, then it’s just fashion. You might get attention for a few minutes, but nobody cares about ideas that are small and wrong. If you don’t agree, go look at last year’s Vogue magazine

How to improve it. If something is old, you can’t make it new. But you can find the new elements. Figure out your own original spin on the idea. Extend it in a new direction.

Powerful ideas must be big

What do I mean by big? A big idea is one with far-reaching consequences. Software is moving to the cloud — that’s a big deal. Civility is no longer required for politicians. Could change everything. Make your idea as big as you can.

Why it’s important. Big ideas have big consequences. That gives them staying power. People want to know: what does this mean for my job, my industry, my future? Minor ideas are fine, but they don’t make many ripples.

Why it’s not enough. If your idea is big, but neither right nor new, then it’s just noise. Anyone can recycle wrong, old big ideas, like communism or creationism. Lacking support, ideas like this fade away and lose influence.

How to improve it. Ask yourself: “What would my idea mean for . . . ” and insert whatever group, country, or industry you can think of. Extend the idea to the point where it is absurd — then take one step back. It’s better to be bold and mostly right, than to be timid and completely right.

Powerful ideas must be expressed simply

This is the X factor. Many worthy ideas don’t catch on simply because people can’t explain them well. If you think you have a powerful idea, then take the time to figure out how to tell people about it in as few words as possible.

Why it’s important. Concepts like the cloud, content marketing, and sports analytics (“moneyball”) caught on not just because people believed in them, but because they could explain and spread them easily.

Why it’s not enough. Simply expressed ideas that are wrong, old, or small are just marketing fluff.

How to improve it. This is the hard part. Ask yourself, how would I explain this to my grandmother? To my three-year-old? Use thesaurus.com to come up with a better name. Brainstorm. Telling other people about your idea — and failing — is the best way to figure out how to improve your story.

Everyone has ideas. They all have flaws. I hope with this post, you have some good ideas on how to improve them. If you’re still stuck, call me; helping people with their ideas is one of my favorite activities.

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  1. Nice! A great tool for expressing the idea simply is analogy. If you can compare your idea to something the reader is already familiar with, you’re halfway there. Describe how your idea is like that familiar thing. Then describe how it’s different. Rarely, if ever, is an idea so new that it can’t be explained using analogy.

  2. Trump is using some of your points very successfully in his campaign.

    Is it right? How can you prove it? – This is of no use to him. He doesn’t bother to prove anything.
    Is it new? If not, what’s new about it? – New wall; all sorts of new enemies to blame; new highs in his pandering to some groups; new lows in his personal accusations and in his behavior.
    Is it big? If not, how can you make it bigger? – A big, really big, wall. I’m rich, really rich. “TRUMP” displayed on his possessions. “I’m, like, a really smart person.”
    Is it simple to express? If not, how can you make it easier to understand? – You can’t make it any simpler to express than “Make America Great Again” and “Throw Them Out”.


  3. Josh,
    In my experience, what I call powerful ideas have two common characteristics:
    1. they simplify or make available something complicated or unavailable
    2. They solve a problem, sometimes, create or highlight the problem to be solved, then ingeniously address it (the ipod springs to mind).
    Not sure how these fit into your context.

    love you work.