Summarize, Generalize, Hypothesize – Thinking Big, Part 1


The Big IdeaGreat leaders think big.  They can spot a great idea, develop it, and then make it happen.  Some people have a natural talent for seeing the larger potential of great ideas, of knowing which sparks are capable of being fanned into bonfires and which are destined to cool and die.  They innately take something and run with it, imagining all of the myriad possibilities and implications.  Their brain is wired to work that way.  However, this kind of “right-brained” thinking does not come easily to everyone.  There are a few techniques, though, that anyone can practice, and if converted into habits, are the first step towards thinking big and becoming a great leader.

Summarize, then Generalize

The first technique starts with the seed of an idea and then mechanically explores it in every direction.  Every time you come across an interesting idea when you read an article, have a stimulating conversation, consume high quality media, or use a cool piece technology, try this simple exercise:

  • First, summarize.  Create a “tweetable” headline that captures the core idea – the part that made you say “Hmmmmm…”  Make it short enough that someone gets the idea in 140 characters or less.  Really try to whittle it down to the fewest words possible without losing the essence.
  • Then, generalize.  Step through the words in the headline and insert, delete, or replace each salient word or phrase with related concepts, especially if they are broader than, reciprocal to, or parallel to the original.

As an example, take a look at this summary taken from the opening paragraph of a recent article in the Association for Computing Machinery’s monthly journal:

The annual ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest develops teamwork, skills, and algorithmic mastery.

If you believe this contest is a great idea, why not take it to the next level?  Instead of “annual”, why not bi-annual, or monthly, or weekly, or ongoing?  Why just collegiate – why not high school, why not elementary school, why have it limited to schools at all?  Instead of a single Programming Contest, why not make it into a suite of contests that test a variety of skills – an “Academic Olympics”?  Why limit it to just sponsorship by the ACM – maybe a consortium of professional groups, or some governmental agency?  Taken together, this great little idea could grow into:

The ongoing Dept. of Education International Open Academic Olympics develops teamwork, skills, and mastery of a wide range of skills, at all stages of life.

As with any brainstorming exercise, it’s important to not throw away ideas that seem too big, too hard, or are otherwise unsuitable too quickly.  Take note of them, come back to them later, and pick the one or two that really resonate.

Hypothesize – Ask “What if?”

The second technique* is naturally complementary to the first, and also relies on simple textual manipulation. If the parts of the headline that you changed are represented by BEFORE and AFTER, then list out all of the sentences of the form “What if instead of BEFORE, we had AFTER?”  In the example above, you might ask “What if instead of being annual contests, we had ongoing contests?” or “What if instead of programming contests, we had all kinds of academic contests?”

For each such question, mentally tick off all of the implications, both positive and negative, of living in a world where AFTER is true.  Don’t worry about how to make that world a reality yet.  Here you’re trying to suss out the benefits and drawbacks of the idea.  This is a prerequisite for determining whether you may even want to pursue the idea.  It doesn’t have to be a full-on analysis – you can always do that later on.

Making it a Habit

These techniques work best if you have internalized them and do them automatically, but they won’t come naturally to you at first.  To help you do that, let me propose a 30 day challenge.  For each of the four weeks in the challenge, pick one of the four modalities mentioned above (written material, conversations, media like TV/movies/radio/music/art, and technologies), and focus on that modality for the week.  Each day, write down the results of the three steps (summarize, generalize, hypothesize) for at least one idea.  This is a brainstorming exercise, so try not to self-edit.  At the end of four weeks you should have at least 28 ideas – spend the last couple of days polishing them and getting ready for the next steps, which I’ll talk about in a follow-up post: Synthesize, Prioritize, Evangelize.

* This second technique has its roots in a meetup I helped found.  It was originally suggested by a co-founder Jesse Bridgewater, with inspiration from the TED talk tryouts.  It’s a great way to have interesting conversations – ask each person that comes to your social gathering to bring one “What if…” – you’ll probably find you won’t even get to them all!