Executing Big Think: How to Pull the Ship over the Mountain

Turning bold ideas into reality requires both method and madness: in this adaptation from his recent book Big Think Strategy, Bernd Schmitt, the Robert D. Calkins Professor of International Business, explains the key steps for successfully rolling out an innovative strategy for your business.
Bernd Schmitt |  July 1, 2008
Email this page Print this page

Great strategy hinges ultimately on its execution. Think of Odysseus’s plan to use the Trojan horse. It was a brilliant plan to sneak inside the walled city and open its gates after ten years of fruitless siege warfare. But its success relied on a host of factors that were all about the execution. To start, Odysseus needed a team with diverse skills: the carpenter Epeius to build the horse; the spy Sinon, who presented the false gift to the enemy; and—bravest of all—the soldiers who would fill the belly of the beast and risk their lives behind enemy lines. The strategic gamble paid off. Troy was conquered overnight, and the poets (Homer and Virgil) made Odysseus’s masterstroke famous for the ages.

Executing a Big Think strategy is different from implementing a more traditional strategy. It is at the same time more challenging and demanding, and more exciting and rewarding. You are in untested territory, but you may also become the envy of the entire industry. You may get hit in the face, or you may walk away as a hero with just a few scratches.

Big Think execution is a sprint. There are many hurdles that you must jump over before you reach the finish line of business success. The first hurdle is to overcome inertia and resistance among your employees and create enthusiasm and sufficient commitment for the strategy. Your employees should not just buy in; you must tap into their aspirations and dreams. The second hurdle is to roll out the strategy successfully over time. Big Think strategy does not hang on the wall like a beautiful canvas; it is a dynamic document laying out creative ideas in detail and in sequence like a musical score. As part of the execution, you must specify milestones and plan for quick wins.

Another hurdle you will face is environmental changes. You must adjust your execution accordingly: there is not enough time to align the entire organization perfectly; instead, be flexible in organizing teams and structures. The final hurdle is to get people outside the organization excited about your Big Think. For that to happen, you must cause a big splash in the marketplace.

Fitzcarraldo: Executing the Impossible

“Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo is a movie in the great tradition of grandiose cinematic visions,” writes movie critic Roger Ebert. It is also a testament to determination, obsession, and the madness that is needed to execute the impossible.

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (called “Fitzcarraldo”) is a businessman and an obsessive music lover who wants to build an opera house in the rain forest. To get the money for his venture, he plans to make a fortune in the rubber business by exploiting untapped rubber trees up the Pongo River. To get to the Pongo, he must drag his steamship from the Amazon River, up a mountain, and then down to the Pongo. It is the sheer madness of this idea—and its cinematic realization—that explains the cult status of the movie.

The real-life Fitzcarraldo is the filmmaker himself, Werner Herzog, a man obsessed with the ambition of executing the grand scheme of the film—and the critical scene of pulling the ship over a mountain—realistically. For the climactic scene of the movie, Herzog hired local Peruvians to haul the enormous ship—inch by inch, with a real block and pulley system—across a real mountain. Herzog used no ship models or special effects because he knew this would compromise his vision. He demanded the truth.

“Fitzcarraldo is not a perfect movie,” writes movie critic Ebert. “But as a document of a quest and a dream, and as the record of man’s audacity and foolish, visionary heroism, there has never been another movie like it.”

Tap into Their Dreams

To execute a really bold project, you need a driven and passionate project manager. Somebody who will fully commit to the project and turn it into a life mission. Somebody who will pull the ship over the mountain.

At one point, when the Fitzcarraldo project seemed to be stalling, investors asked Herzog whether he would like to quit. “If I abandon this project, I will be a man without dreams,” he replied. “I live my life or I end my life with the project.”

Like the project manager, team members must be invested with their minds and hearts. The project manager must tap into the aspirations and dreams of every individual team member. I am not talking about buy-in here. Buy-in is a manipulative command-and-control system, and everyone sees right through it. Think of how a corporate buy-in process usually works: At the beginning of the strategic planning process, senior leaders select the few heads that they believe are favorable to what they intend to do. This leadership team then designs the strategy without much input from others. The buy-in then occurs top down through the corporate hierarchy via motivational speeches, strategy papers, e-mails, meetings, and workshops. Individual employees, who are supposed to execute the strategy in the field, are informed about why the strategy is needed and what it entails, but they do not see the benefit and thus cannot make the strategy their own. Because there is nothing in it for them, their buy- in will be forced.

In contrast, Big Think execution requires that people perform with enthusiasm. We need not motivate them, they motivate themselves. In line with the Big Think strategy, employees will set their own individual goals, striving to achieve their career and personal dreams. They will see the project as a means to their own growth. In other words, we instill some sense of higher calling. People are devoted to the strategy because they are able to “self-actualize,” in a Maslowian sense, when they execute the Big Think strategy.

For all of that to happen, the Big Think strategy must be inspirational. It must be a positive force in people’s lives and be given a high priority within the organization. The professional and personal rewards to each employee must be clearly communicated. Leaders must talk to employees, look them in the eye, and listen to their dreams.

Plan for Milestones and Quick Wins

Big Think success rarely happens overnight. It takes time. It takes time to get ready for execution, to launch, and to roll out. It takes time for customers to overcome their reservations, to get used to the new idea, and to see how it is valuable to them. It takes time to gain distribution in a new market. It may take a few weeks, months, or a couple of years before you can see results.

One of my Asian clients set precise milestones for its entry into the U.S. market. The first milestone was to establish a flagship retail store to attract the attention of consumers and department stores. The next milestone was to have a counter in a prominent department store with nationwide presence, in a key city. The milestone after that was to get limited distribution within the department store chain, and so on. The execution toward each goal made it necessary to plan new product introductions as well as related PR and media
events accordingly.

In addition, you need quick wins early on. Few employees will be excited throughout the process and patiently strive for full market domination. Skepticism may kick in. Was it such a good idea after all? If the Big Think idea does not seem likely to deliver, some will prefer to coast or just jump ship.

For example, consider a radically new product that is supposed to target a new market. For that situation, it is appropriate to set milestones for specific markets and along the diffusion-of-innovation curve. A quick win may then still be small, but everyone will see that there is potential. The next milestone could be gaining awareness among the innovative users of the total market. After that early success, the Big Think operational plan should focus on broader market acceptance, and there must be a success yardstick for that.

The Absolut vodka market entry into the United States in the early 1980s followed this approach. Supported by a cool advertising campaign depicting the shape of the bottle, Absolut quickly won over Bostonians and New Yorkers. It then expanded to other East Coast cities, always targeting trendy bars, then entered the West Coast, and finally national distribution. Absolut has been the best-selling imported vodka in the United States for years.

Organize Flexibly

When you are launching a Big Think project, competitors will respond, customer preferences and trends will change, and soon your Big Think will not seem so big any more. Organizational leaders often fixate on “aligning the entire organization” perfectly around a new strategy. Frankly, in Big Think, you do not have time for that.

Neither does a coach in football (or, as it is called in the United States, soccer). Before the game the coach puts together a strategy and assembles the team of players. As the game unfolds, the coach must flexibly reorganize the team.

Like football coaches, business leaders must be prepared to reorganize the team into cross-functional units that perform interrelated tasks efficiently and effectively. Moreover, everybody must support everybody else and be willing to take on another task if so required. Some team members will need to shift positions midway through a project. Spontaneous reorganization is a fact of life: it occurs at the molecular level of the brain, where brain cells or neurons can take on functions that they were originally not designed for, as well as at the macro level of groups.

Make a Big Splash

Finally, to execute a Big Think strategy successfully, you must make a big splash in the market. To ensure that happens, you must identify what captures everybody’s attention and imagination and use bold communications. On the way, if you are clever, you may get a little help from your friends—the customers.

Find the Attention Getters

Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, is engaged in a massive economic development program that aims to liberate its economy from dependence on oil (reserves are projected to run out by 2010) by making the country a hub for global service industries such as IT, finance, and media as well as a destination for tourism. The strategy has been hugely successful, with oil now accounting for only 6 percent of GDP.

As part of the execution, Dubai has not just been building ports and free-trade business zones in its unprecedented program of real estate development. Dubai has also launched several projects that are drawing the world’s attention to this tiny Arab emirate. One attention getter is the Burj Al Arab—a dramatic “seven-star” hotel on the coast. Every room is a lavish suite. You arrive by Rolls-Royce limousine, helicopter, or submarine. Another development, Palm Dubai, is a complex of hundreds of luxury villas, the largest land reclamation project ever and one of the few man-made structures that is visible from outer space. More than that, Dubai hosts one of the world’s largest artificial skiing resorts, in the middle of the desert. It is also constructing some of the largest buildings on earth. When I visited recently, I learned that Dubai’s leaders are thinking about creating attention getters at all levels. Tourism is one part of the new economic mix for the country, but it is also a way of getting the business world to visit and discover that it can now open global operations in this Middle East state. With all its buzz, Dubai has been successfully stealing attention away from other city-states like Singapore.

Use Bold Communications

In addition to attention getters, bold communications are part of creating a big splash. Think of the great advertising campaigns: Nike’s “Just Do It,” the Marlboro Man, Avis’s “We Try Harder,” De Beers’s “A Diamond Is Forever,” or the Absolut bottle print ads. (I am sure you have your own list; these ads are on the Advertising Age top ten ad list of all time.) They are still conversation pieces today. They have reached cult status.

However, do not just think advertising. Web sites, new media, even sponsorships can be part of big-splash executions. Yet, often they are not employed to their fullest potential. Many sponsorships, for example, are just banner campaigns—you put up your company logo on a banner over the stage, and you are done.

“At Audi, we use sponsorship to upgrade the image and prestige of our brand to become the most successful maker of prestige cars,” Ralph Weyler, chief marketing officer of Audi, told me. “A sponsorship must have impact. It must be part of a total package.” During the course of writing this book, I had the chance to experience Audi sponsorship activities firsthand during the Salzburg Opera Festival, the Hahnenkamm ski race in Kitzbühel, Austria, and in Las Vegas. At each of these venues, and at others, Audi offers a complete package, including entertainment of VIP guests, an Audi-driving experience, and limousine service (in Las Vegas, forty brand-new R8 sports cars were all cruising, one after the other, along the Strip). This creates much more customer buzz than any banner placed in a sports arena.

Finally, communications must be integrated to have maximum impact. Take Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. The campaign began with a big idea, based on research that indicated that women around the world were tired of the beauty stereotypes used in advertising. To convey the big idea that beauty comes in many forms, an integrated communications campaign was created to connect with women worldwide on many levels.

The campaign started with a Web site. Then Dove’s ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather, launched a series of outdoor and print ads featuring “real women” with real curves, full figures, gray hair, and freckles. Several billboards featured an interactive element that let viewers vote on whether a woman was “fat or fab,” “wrinkled or wonderful,” “gray or gorgeous,” or “flawed or flawless” through text messaging. In one week, over half a million people had cast a vote for the billboard on Times Square in New York. All communications were designed to get people talking and create a buzz. In addition, Dove partnered with the Oprah Winfrey Show, where the campaign was featured during the first week of the U.S. launch.

“The power behind Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty comes not only from the idea itself, but also from the integrated communications behind it. There was a huge PR component in the campaign launch. There’s an interactive Web site where women can talk to each other and exchange views. Dove even set up a fund for young women to help communicate to them that beauty can be many different things,” says Shelly Lazarus, chairman and CEO of Ogilvy and Mather Worldwide. The free publicity Dove received from U.S. media coverage of the campaign as of mid-2006 has been estimated to exceed $21 million.

Get Help from Customers

As you roll out your Big Think strategy, do not keep everything hidden within the organization. Involve people outside the organization. Consider craigslist.

Craigslist.org is a simple Web site helping people with everyday needs, such as finding a job or a place to live, through classified ads. Craigslist does not use any form of traditional marketing. In fact, the entire Web site is largely run by users. This keeps the company lean (at the beginning of 2007, it had twenty-three employees) and focused on customer service. “It happened organically. It happened without conscious intent on our part,” Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist.org, told me. “You provide a trustworthy environment. You give people a break. You make it easy for people to give you a break. That seems to work.”

Similarly, a tremendous big splash during the 2006 FIFA World Cup, which involved customers, was the so-called fan fests, designated areas equipped with huge screens and speakers, allowing football fans from all countries to gather and watch the games. The fan fests transformed the fan experience and turned the World Cup into a huge party. This innovative idea, conceived by Schmidt und Kaiser, an event agency, is likely to be repeated globally during the
2010 games.

Over the Mountain, into the Rainbow

You have cleared the four hurdles of Big Think execution now. You have tapped into the dreams of your employees. You have planned for milestones and quick wins. You have set up flexible organizational structures that have rapidly responded to a changing environment. You have grabbed everyone’s attention.

You have made it. You have pulled the ship over the mountain—and into the rainbow.

How does it feel?

To learn more about this book, visit MeetSchmitt.com.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. From Big Think Strategy by Bernd H. Schmitt. Boston, MA, 2007, pp. 103–120. Copyright 2007 by Bernd H. Schmitt; all rights reserved.

jQuery(document).ready(function() { if(GetParameterValues('item') && GetParameterValues('item') !='') { var show1 = GetParameterValues('item'); jQuery('#fullProfile li').hide(); jQuery('#fullProfile li#' + show1).show(); } function GetParameterValues(param) { var url = window.location.href.slice(window.location.href.indexOf('?') + 1).split('&'); for (var i = 0; i < url.length; i++) { var urlparam = url[i].split('='); if (urlparam[0] == param) { return urlparam[1]; } } } });