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Posted by Tina Catling 14 December 2016 Innovation Consultancy

The temptation to think big when it comes to innovation is always there. Every innovator wants to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, bringing a revolutionary shift in their industry and finding ‘the next big thing’.

Yet when it comes to innovation, the merits of thinking small often far outweigh any grandiose plans in their reach and impact on the industry. Here are just a few reasons why thinking small can in fact prove to be more beneficial to innovation and problem solving.


The size of the innovation doesn’t always correspond with the impact it has. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article by Jeff Rodman, co-founder of video conferencing firm Polycom, ‘zeroing in on small innovations leads to big breakthroughs. After all, the hinge for innovation, as cliché as it might sound, is doing more with less.’

Rodman argues that by focusing on minute details of your strategy, whether that means asking yourself what small changes could be made to your processes and organisational structures, or even which elements can be taken away from them, you could in fact find new and exciting ways to tackle challenges that are stopping your organisation from reaching its full potential.

It is also suggested that this small thinking should play out into the arenas of design and habits. Rodman argues that by reducing the complexity of ideas and products the end result can be more accessible and user-friendly for the consumer, as opposed to offering them ever more superfluous and gimmicky options that have negligible added value. 


To the same end, Rich Kneece, Chief Product Officer at US employee engagement firm Vocoli told Wired that although big innovation can seem attractive, ‘there’s something to be said for getting the innovation ball rolling by focusing on a series of small ideas that have measurable impact over time.’

Kneece points to the MVP, or 'minimum viable product’, concept as an important insight to draw from the often agile start-up and tech community. According to Kneece, MVP is ‘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.’

In innovation terms, it is argued that ‘small impact ideas get the ball rolling. The leaders involved in these smaller initiatives establish a track record of being supportive to new ideas. In turn, this motivates others to start contributing ideas.’

It is this trust and confidence building that is essential to shifting organisational culture towards being a safe space for new ideas to be suggested and trialled, which in the long term can have profound effects on an organisation’s capacity to innovate. For Kneece ‘a gradual evolution where tiny wins build on each other is a more sustainable (and effective) solution’ than going after quick wins and low hanging fruit as a solution to innovation.


An interesting article for Stanford Social Innovation Review, written by Timothy Ogden of NYU’s Financial Access Initiative, argues that thinking big can often risk oversimplifying the challenge at hand.

The article suggests that the popularity of “big idea” thinking as played out on non-fiction bookshelves and at innovation conferences is in fact giving disproportional weight to the value of big innovation, and argues that a need to appreciate nuance and finer details in problem solving is necessary in order to move beyond this framework.

Ogden closes by offering three pieces of advice for innovators looking to think small. Taken from the book Poor Economics written by MIT’s Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, he suggests that in order to create meaningful innovation innovators should;

  • Resist lazy, formulaic thinking that reduces people and problems to the same set of general observations and principles.
  • Listen to people and force yourself to understand the logic of their choices.
  • Subject every idea, no matter how common-sensical, to rigorous testing.

In following the advice of Ogden, Kneece and Rodman, it is possible to see that often it is small thinking, small designs, small questions and small changes that ultimately lead to the most meaningful innovations with the greatest long term impact. In order to truly foster a culture of innovation that is discernible at every level of an organisation, encouraging and listening to such small suggestions by all employees could in fact be the first step to adding value to your organisation’s offering. 

As global innovation specialists we aim to help and encourage people and organizations to become more nimble, boosting their ability to generate ideas. We bring pace and focus to your innovation initiatives using our unique innovation techniques, which are constantly being developed by our professional licensees. If you’re interested in becoming a licensee for the think team, contact us here.

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