We spoke to 500 founders about how big ideas get realised (or not.) Here’s what we learned

This article is based on research by Peter Koenig. Charles Davies has also been instrumental in developing the ideas here.

Black Monday

On a cold Monday morning at my company’s all-hands meeting I stood pale-faced in front of the team and updated them on our situation. The business was likely to close in a matter of weeks. Possibly days.

I’d seen an insolvency practitioner — the undertakers of the business world — earlier that morning. We were solvent, just, but the plan to prevent financial collapse was a long-shot. Like climbing Mount Everest in ballet shoes.

It was certain everyone would lose their jobs. Christmas was just a few weeks away. There were tears. There was blame. Much of it directed at me, and with good cause.

This is a little snippet of my own rollercoaster ride as a founder. I’ve had times where everything flowed and times like this when it felt like the sky was falling in. It’s just one of over 500 stories from entrepreneurs and other founders collected over many years in research led by Peter Koenig, with Charles Davies also playing a key role in refining the principles which emerged.

Idea realisation

What drew me into this research is that it’s unlike most enquiries into founders and entrepreneurs. It’s not focussed on generating revenue, financial valuations, getting from “zero to one”, or gaining market share. Nor is it about the organisations themselves. That stuff all has its place, but it’s secondary.

This is all about idea realisation:

  • How and why do the big ideas which founders start initiatives with get realised?
  • Why do initiatives sometimes fizzle out?
  • What are the conditions for sustaining the passion and energy needed over the long-term?
  • What’s the role of founders in all of this?

It also just so happens that the principles which have emerged from the research explained everything I have experienced in 15 years as a founder. That’s part of why I’m so hooked on it.

In this article I’ll summarise three key principles about idea realisation, then with those in mind I’ll give you 14 conditions for making it work in practice. At the end there are some suggestions for learning more.

Three principles for understanding idea realisation

  1. Move your focus from the organisation or company itself with its formal org chart, and instead focus a layer deeper on the underlying creative initiative to realise an idea.
  2. Acknowledge and work with the natural hierarchy of the creative initiative which emerges and grows as an idea gets realised.
  3. Respect the creative authority that individuals have over their initiatives.

Let’s look at each principle in turn. As we do this, you might find it’s different from your existing mental models about how things work. You might find that challenging.

I’m not telling you that your view of reality is wrong. Just see this as a pair of glasses you can put on to look at initiatives differently. I can promise you that it’s damn useful to have this pair of glasses in your toolkit. You can avoid so many of the common tensions, confusions and struggles that stop big ideas getting realised. The promised land is collaboration which is full of flow and the joy of seeing a vision come to life.

1. There is a creative initiative beneath every formal organisation

When our focus is on idea realisation, we need to look a layer deeper than the formal organisation. That means looking beneath the shareholding, directorships, official org chart, reporting lines, operational processes, job titles and role descriptions.

It doesn’t matter if the organisation chart and operating model is a traditional hierarchy, matrix or a funky new Holacracy, there’s another layer beneath all of that. When it comes to idea realisation, it’s this deeper layer where the magic happens.

This layer is where things like purpose, vision, values and passion come to life.

The org charts we’re all used to can be designed, be that centrally in the case of hierarchies or through democratic decisions in the case of Holacracy. However, a creative initiative is an entirely emergent phenomenon.

2. A creative initiative is a natural hierarchy and can be visualised

Creative initiatives have a hierarchical form which you can visualise as a set of concentric circles. This process, created by Charles Davies, shows how the initiative to realise an overall big idea breaks down into sub-initiatives to realise smaller ideas that contribute to it.

So, it’s a map of an initiative, not a design. It’s simply charting what has naturally emerged.

A portion of an initiative map created using the Maptio online tool.

Whether acknowledged or not, there is a creative hierarchy beneath all companies, projects and every other human endeavour. Because underneath all of the formal organisation stuff, there’s an ongoing process of realising an idea. If you lose sight of that, problems occur. If you focus on idea realisation, you have the best chance of success.

3. Individuals have natural creative authority, not groups

Each circle on an initiative map has exactly one individual with natural authority over it. This is a controversial idea to many people, but keep an open mind.

Authority has become a taboo recently because it’s associated with de-humanising power over people. We are rightly beginning to reject that kind of toxic power. Charles Davies explains that we should think of authority here like authorship. It’s a naturally emerging role. Just like how J.K.Rowling is the authority over Harry Potter. We can’t have a meeting to decide who has that role.

We call the person with the natural authority over the outer circle on the map the source of the initiative. And people with authority over the sub-initiatives within it are called sub-sources.

The initiative mapping process is about simply noticing who has authority over what portions of the big idea, and then drawing it. The best way to do this is focus on how the overall initiative and its component sub-initiatives started.

How initiatives start

Every initiative starts with exactly one source. Even if two or more people were there at the start, if you re-tell the founding story carefully you can identify the one originating founder. They were the person who took the first risk to start realising the idea. This applies to the overall big idea and all of the sub-initiatives within it.

Don’t worry if your mental model is about completely equal co-founders and shared authority. That’s a useful lens sometimes too. I’ll just say that having this extra level of precision in the mapping process, and acknowledging natural, individual authority, is incredibly useful for sustained efforts to realise ideas.

Another way to think about this is that it’s technically impossible for two or more people to simultaneously begin to realise precisely the same idea in precisely the same instant. It might seem like a subtle difference if they were all present at that genesis moment, but it makes a profound difference later on. So acknowledging who was first and has the natural authority is extremely valuable.

14 conditions for successful idea realisation

You could fill a book with stories of the principles and dynamics which happen in the creative order in action. I’m writing that book at the moment (connect with me on LinkedIn if you’d like to know when it’s published).

For now, here’s a little summary of a bunch of key principles. You’ll find these in operation in every initiative which is managing to sustain the effort to realise a big idea. The people involved might not frame it this way, but look closely and you’ll see these principles in action. Where these principles are being broken, you’ll find the energy on its way to fizzling out.

1. The source at each level must take responsibility for the initiative they have authority over.

Authority and responsibility go hand-in-hand. It’s impossible to take responsibility for something you don’t have authority over. So if you have authority you must take responsibility for realisation too.

2. The source must stand firm in their authority over what’s in and what’s out.

They carefully guard the edges of their initiative, not allowing any activity which is not helping to realise the idea to happen there. But if people have a need which can’t be met within the initiative, they can actively help them to meet that need outside the initiative. Nobody needs to be unfulfilled.

3. A good source puts vulnerability ahead of heroism.

Being a source is a vulnerable role. By taking the initiative to realise an idea, a source opens a personal, unmet need to the world. This unmet need is the root of their passion for realising the idea. The source stays grounded and vulnerable in their personal need.

4. The source must ask for help and allows people to help.

Since this is not about hero entrepreneurs who have all the answers, a source knows they need help. The trick is to allow others to step in and help in a way that also meets a need for them yet without compromising the source’s authority over the initiative.

5. A source knows some helpers need to be controlled and others not.

There are two basic types of helper:

  1. People who see their work in the initiative as part of their own creative journey in life. They are drawn to the source’s initiative because it’s a good space for them to be creative too. These people need to be given the freedom to take responsibility for sub-initiatives where they assume the role of source and authority for that part.
  2. People who are really there for the salary, the fulfilment of the work itself, and the relationships. These people are just as valuable, capable and intelligent, but if they aren’t truly on their own creative journey, they need good delegation, not complete creative freedom. But always give them the opportunity to become fully creative when they are ready.

Problems occur when you treat one type like the other: creatives will feel stifled, and non-creatives will not have the necessary connection to the source and will likely inadvertently hamper the realisation of the idea.

6. The source must respect the authority of sub-sources.

If a sub-source takes responsibility for realising part of the overall idea, the source leaves them to it, respecting all of these same principles within that sub-initiative. They should only intervene if the sub-source inadvertently moves their sub-initiative outside the outer edge of the main initiative.

7. The source must listen carefully to possible next steps.

A good source is open to the many ideas and opportunities which present themselves. Processes like Theory U, Art of Hosting and Sociocracy can all help to generate useful ideas from groups. Many people can contribute, yet underneath the group process, it’s about helping an individual source to get clear.

8. A source needs to be comfortable with doubt.

Contrary to the myth of the hero visionary founder, the chronic state of a source is doubt. Being comfortable and even loving this doubt is all part of the process.

9. Until the next step is clear, the source needs the discipline to do nothing.

If a source takes the next step before they’re clear, you can expect to see a correction needing to be made later, and it will cause confusion, resistance, and wasted resources. A good source will continue to listen until they’re clear. And when they know they’re clear, they really know. They feel it in their body. It doesn’t mean the next step will always work. Experimentation and failure are all part of the journey. The important thing is knowing that the risk you want to take is definitely the next step.

10. Once the next step is clear, a source must take it, no matter what.

Taking the next step might mean a source has to play a character they might resist. The personal development journey of a source needs to include the ability to adopt whatever identity is necessary to take the next step. Otherwise the initiative will stall.

11. Money must never be the focus of the initiative.

Money needs to be managed carefully in service of the idea. It can be seen as a useful resource, but it never replaces the vision as the main focus.

12. There is always a next step, with and without money.

The source never allows themselves to feel stuck if they don’t have money. There is always a next step providing there’s an idea and passion for it. The formal organisation can go bankrupt yet the creative initiative can continue into a new phase.

13. The formal organisation should be designed to support the creative initiative beneath it.

Whatever formal structure is designed or allowed to evolve using a democratic process must support the initiative, otherwise it will get in the way of the idea being realised. Focussing on the organisation itself can sometimes create a happy of community of co-workers. If that’s the vision, then fine. But if there’s a big creative idea to be realised, the organisation needs to be designed to be fit for that purpose.

14. The source notices when they are done with the initiative

If the idea has been fully realised, they close the initiative. Or if there’s energy for others to continue, they ‘pass the torch’ of the role of source to a natural successor who takes on the natural authority.

To summarise

So the conceptual framework is this: A creative order beneath the formal organisation, which can be mapped in its natural hierarchical form. At each level, there is an individual source with natural authority over that part.

If you keep the 14 conditions listed here flowing you’ll find you can realise your biggest, wildest ideas.


Tom Nixon is the founder of Maptio — a tool for building progressive organisations to realise big ideas in the world. You can register for the beta version of Maptio on the website.

Learn more

You can connect with me on LinkedIn if you’d like a copy of the book when it’s ready.

Check out the Medium publication how to be clear for more articles about this way of working.

Finally, if you would like my help as an advisor or coach, drop me a line.

Attribution

Peter Koenig is the authority on the source principles having started and carried out all of the core research himself. The initiative mapping process and the language around creative order and authority is attributed to Charles Davies, who has worked closely with Peter for a number of years to help refine the source principles and put them into practice. Charles introduced me to the work and got me hooked on it. I’m helping Peter to get the ideas into the world through further research and putting it to work with founders who want to realise big ideas.