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THREE BENEFITS OF USING LITTLE IDEAS TO BUILD BIG INNOVATIONS

Posted by Ayesha Patel 4 July 2017 Innovation Consultancy

In the constant bid to be disruptive, innovators often seek the big ideas. With so much commentary centred around game-changing innovations that have fundamentally altered the marketplace and made a lasting impact on their industry, it is little wonder that many organisations fall into the trap of thinking that innovation has to be on a super-sized scale.

And yet in contrast to this conceived wisdom, often it is in fact the little ideas that make the biggest innovation impact. Quite how this comes to be offers an insight into how ideas develop into innovations and the process required to get there. Here are three benefits of fostering little ideas: 

THEY CAN BE LOW RISK

In any innovation there is an element of risk, and it is an organisation’s ability to manage and capitalise upon this risk which often determines the success of innovation. Too risk averse and the ability to innovate is hampered, too tolerant of risk and you could find yourself making unnecessary mistakes and following unproductive avenues.

Yet one benefit of working on incremental innovation and fostering little ideas is that this can be a relatively low risk way of embedding a culture of innovation in an organisation, while continuing to drive progress forwards. This is the argument made by David Robertson, author of ‘The Power of Little Ideas’, which articulates ‘a low-risk, high-reward approach to innovation.’ As a long-standing professor at The Wharton School, Robertson believes that there is a "third way" in innovation ‘that is neither sustaining nor disruptive,’ but rather an outlook which uses small ideas to drive competitive advantage.

Robertson’s idea consists of three key elements, according to Harvard Business Review: it involves ‘creating a family of complementary innovations around a product or service, all of which work together to make that product more appealing and competitive.’ These innovations then work as a system to carry out a single strategy or purpose, which, unlike disruptive or radical innovation, does not change the central product in any fundamental way. Pointing to huge industry names such as Lego, GoPro and Disney who have successfully adopted this approach, Robertson argues organisations can equip themselves to deal with a hyper-competitive marketplace and overcome potential challenges in their respective fields.

LITTLE IDEAS COME FROM ALL LEVELS OF AN ORGANISATION

The temptation to believe that innovation comes from above is strong, but many of the most successful organisations understand that innovation is something fostered and nurtured at all levels of a business.

One of the benefits of working with little ideas is that these can be easily communicated, built up and collaborated on by multiple members of the team across a variety of managerial and employee levels. George Chavel, President and CEO of global organisation Sodexo, wrote a LinkedIn article about the importance of little ideas in which he suggested that rather than being about ‘developing the next big thing’, innovation is often in fact about ‘keeping the whole company relevant and healthy [and] having the ability to adapt.’ 

Chavel believes cooperative work on small ideas is central to this, and suggests that ‘for a CEO it’s essential to focus on “the what and the why” and let your talented teams figure out “the how”.’ He argues that the “how” of an idea should be used as a tool to foster engagement within your team and ‘inspire them to take ownership of the innovation process.’ By adopting such an approach to innovation it is possible to draw ideas from multiple levels of business and ensure that these are both filtered up to the level of final decision makers, but also back down through the organisation, to ensure that the impact of working on an innovation is visible and rewarded.

MVP CAN GET THE BALL ROLLING

The concept of MVP, or minimum viable product, may not sound like an aspirational innovation to work towards, and yet it can have a huge impact on the way that organisations think about and discuss innovation.

The key to MVP is simplicity, with Wired describing the term as ‘essentially the simplest possible version of a product that you can build before you get the ball rolling, get it into people’s hands, and start collecting feedback.’ Suggesting that this notion should be applied to innovation more generally, Wired argues that while small impact ideas may not achieve notoriety in their own right in the way that the iPhone or the humble Post-It note once did, their value lies in the fact that they can act as the beginning of a process in which team members are encouraged to contribute ideas and build a strong methodology, that can later be applied to bigger ideas.

Wired concludes that while revolutionary innovation may be the more glamorous concept, in fact ‘a gradual evolution where tiny wins build on each other is a more sustainable (and effective) solution’ which builds momentum and lays the foundations for larger wins in the future.

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