Review: Sometimes a Great Notion

What’s the Big Idea? Creating and Capitalizing on the Best Management Thinking
By Thomas H. Davenport and Laurence Prusak with H. James Wilson
Harvard Business School Press
May 2003
256 pages, $27.50

Pity the poor senior manager (yes, that means you). You try to keep pace with new ideas to help you do your job better, but there just isn’t enough time to go through all the daily papers, business magazines, management periodicals and specialty journals, not to mention the thousands of books and Web sites out there. Just reviewing the list is exhausting.

Thomas H. Davenport, Babson College professor and director of the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change, and his co-authors want to help. They’ve surveyed the landscape for people who have had notable successes introducing new ideas within their organizations—the authors call them “idea practitioners”—in hopes of discovering their secrets. What did they find? Hard work wins out over waiting for inspiration to strike; you know more than you think you do; and you can build off the work of others.

Let’s take these ideas one at a time. Suppose you’re having trouble coming up with new ideas. If the traditional business sources are letting you down, the authors suggest turning to other realms—physics and philosophy seem to be favorite hunting grounds. Perhaps more helpful is their suggestion to spend more time exploring ideas that have a particular resonance. In other words, trust your gut. To oversimplify, if you’ve noticed that communication within your organization is lacking, and the idea of “business process re-engineering” catches your eye, it might make sense to pursue it, since a central part of BPR calls for knocking down walls between departments.

As for building off the work of others, the authors suggest turning to business gurus first. Get a sense of what these folks have to offer and adapt what seems relevant. The authors even provide a ranking of 200 gurus based on a methodology combining hits on Google, citations in the Social Sciences Citation Index (how many times academics have cited each guru’s works), and media mentions. (Using this method Michael Porter comes up No. 1 and author Davenport comes in at No. 23.)

Sure, you can question any ranking that puts futurologist Alvin Toffler at No. 8, and Steve Kerr, longtime head of GE’s learning center and now Goldman Sachs’ chief learning officer, at No. 181, but at least they’ve given you 200 leads.

What happens when you come up with an idea you think has potential? The authors suggest measuring it against the “three classic themes” they say are common to the best ideas.

• Efficiency. This might encompass such ideas as activity-based costing, benchmarking, enterprise systems and experience curves.

• Effectiveness. Includes balanced scorecards, brand management, core competencies, decision trees.

• Innovation. Includes adaptive enterprises, brainstorming, intrapreneurship.

An idea might contain two themes (knowledge management combines effectiveness and innovation), or even all three (e-business leaps to mind). The key is to make sure you understand how the idea fits at least one theme before advocating it inside your organization.

The book’s mini-profiles of the idea practitioners don’t add much and the organization of the material is far from intuitive. Still, anything that has the potential to help you find new ideas while decreasing your reading load is welcome.

Reviewed by Paul B. Brown, author of 14 business books including The Map of Innovation: How to Create Something Out of Nothing (written with Kevin O’Connor), just published by Crown Business. Please send comments to

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