When movies depict the birth of a billion-dollar idea, it often looks like a lightning-bolt strike of genius — something dreamed up in the shower or conjured from frantic scribbles on a whiteboard or maybe a napkin.
But Sheena S. Iyengar, the S. T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School and an expert on choice and decision-making, thinks these “aha moment” clichés are best left to fiction. “Coming up with a great idea is not magic,” she says. “You don’t have to rely on random chance. By having the right knowledge, you can develop a go-to method to generate an idea for anything you want, any time you want.”
Iyengar first started thinking about idea generation about a decade ago. She saw fundamental flaws in accepted practices like design thinking. Pulling on this thread further led Iyengar to a deeper analysis. She wondered, how could we be thinking about ideation differently? And how could educators change the way it’s taught?
Iyengar spent the past three years outlining the answers to those questions in Think Bigger: How to Innovate. The book lays out a prescriptive process for finding solutions to problems, summarized in six steps:
- Pinpoint the problem you want to solve
- Break down that problem into a series of three to five “sub-problems”
- Determine precisely how you would want an ideal solution to feel
- Examine potential solutions to each sub-problem, including both in- and out-of-the-box tactics
- Generate a “Choice Map” with hundreds or even thousands of potential solutions to your problem
- Perform a “Third Eye Test” to check in with your intuition
Think Bigger goes on to suggest a series of exercises and techniques for each step, including detailed instructions for constructing a Choice Map.
At the May 10 book launch, interviewer Lesley Stahl from 60 Minutes described Think Bigger as both “engaging” and “revolutionary.”
Below, Iyengar shares her thoughts on the book and the course at CBS where she teaches the material to students.
CBS: What’s the origin story behind Think Bigger?
Sheena S. Iyengar: In 2010, I wrote the book The Art of Choosing. When I was out giving talks to different companies, they said, “You’ve done a good job explaining the difficulties of choosing. But so much of my problem has to do with how we create choices.” I realized that I actually needed an answer to that.
A few years later, I became the academic director of the Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurship Center. My main job was to review our curriculum. I realized we had a lot to say about why innovation was important, how to get funding, how to create prototypes, and many other topics. But there was very little in terms of how to get an idea in the first place. I began to ask how we could improve the teaching of ideation and change the way we brainstorm.
And in fact, the greatest science on how we form thoughts — Eric Kandel’s Nobel Prize-winning work on learning and memory — had been done right here on campus, and we weren't taking advantage of it. As I was teaching this work, I realized, “Let’s throw out brainstorming. We can do better.” So I created a new method.
CBS: What does that new method involve, and what went into crafting it?
Iyengar: An alternative to brainstorming is Choice Mapping. The interesting thing about it is, it gives you a structured approach. Yet it also gives you far more possible choices than mind wandering or brainstorming.
Four sources of inspiration went into Choice Mapping. There’s cognitive science, neuroscience, traditional strategy/economic theory on innovation, and then my own personal experience of innovating. I have a unique background as a blind person. The fundamental struggle I’ve always had was figuring out how to create choices for myself, because I lived in a world where people didn’t always know what choices I could access. I had to constantly figure it out. I think that intuitively played a role.
CBS: Can you speak a little about the Think Bigger course you teach at CBS?
Iyengar: It’s a 12-week class. The students come up with an entrepreneurial problem that they want to generate a solution for. Over the course of the semester, they use the method to come up with a solution. It’s not something they're ready to implement. It’s not something that's ready to be funded. It’s just an idea. And they present this to different judges we invite into the class.
I love teaching the course. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job.
CBS: How have you observed the teachings of Think Bigger manifest in the real world?
Iyengar: A lot of students have gone to Ernst & Young and other consulting firms. EY actually uses the Think Bigger framework as part of its training program. But there have been some startups that have come out of it, too. In order to solve problems in getting resources to remote parts of Africa during the pandemic, a student used the method to come up with the idea of wisdom councils for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One member of the Executive in Residence program used Think Bigger to help a number of midsized companies throughout Africa create growth. Those are just a few examples.
CBS: Beyond academia, who do you think can benefit from the teachings in Think Bigger?
Iyengar: One of the biggest challenges confronting companies — particularly large ones, but even small companies — is the inability to innovate. They think that their only pathway to innovation is to acquire or to merge. And I think they can do better.
Think Bigger is essentially a method by which anybody — no matter who you are — can come up with better ideas. It’s an approach you can use for figuring out how to get your kid into college or figuring out what career you want to undertake. Both individuals and companies can use it.
Watch 60 Minutes journalist Lesley Stahl interview Professor Iyengar about her new book: