What’s the Big Idea?

Coming up with a moon-shot goal can be tricky, but fear of failure is no reason not to try.

How many times have you heard your boss say, "Do it, as long as we don't end up on the front page of The Washington Post." At the heart of that admonition is a sense of fear-the fear that what you do might be interpreted as failure. And it is that fear that squashes many big ideas in government.

Some big ideas no doubt deserve such a fate. But not all of them. Management guru Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don't (Collins, 2001), encourages leaders to come up with a "big, hairy, audacious goal" to inspire employees over a long period. Such goals look out years into the future to define what an organization could accomplish with a sustained focus on excellence. An obvious example is NASA's 1960s push to put a man on the moon. For a middling private business, the big idea could be to become the No. 1 company in the world in its industry, as measured by sales and other quantifiable objectives. Coming up with a moon-shot idea is a tricky proposition, but fear of failure is no reason not to try.

What would such an idea look like in the federal government? For the Transportation Department, it could be halving the number of highway deaths. For the National Weather Service, it could be expanding hurricane warnings with the precise landfall point to three days. At the Homeland Security Department, it could be ending illegal immigration.

The Education Department already has one: getting all children reading and doing math on grade level by 2014. That goal, included in the No Child Left Behind Act, has been enormously controversial in public schools, with many educators saying it is unattainable. President Bush signed the law five years ago. While few people expect the goal to be met, its existence has focused the nation's public education system on reading and math achievement, particularly for low-income and minority students whose scores are far lower on average than wealthy and white students.

A question that federal leaders must ponder when thinking about big ideas is who should set them. In the Education Department's case, it was Congress and the president who determined the reading and math goals. The same was true for NASA's man-on-the-moon push. But managers at all levels can set less universal goals that are nonetheless big in their sphere of influence. If you're the captain of a Navy ship, you can set a goal of being the best ship in the Navy. If you run a regional Social Security Administration office, you can aim to have the highest accuracy rates and the highest citizen satisfaction rates in the nation.

Author Marianne Williamson wrote: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us." One of her points is that thinking and acting big implicitly gives permission to other people to do the same. That kind of motivation is important for managers at any level. "There is nothing enlightened about shrinking, so other people won't feel insecure around you," Williamson says. "Your playing small does not serve the world."

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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