Recently, an executive from one of our larger clients visited the Seven Step delivery center, and while she was here, led a meeting with the recruitment teams assigned to her business. She used the time to flesh out her teams' understanding of her company's unique mission, business model, and culture. It was a great meeting.
Her thoughts on "innovation" were particularly interesting. In her company, they draw a clear distinction between "big-I Innovation" and "little-i innovation." Her point was simple: innovation comes in a number of ways, and innovations don't have to be paradigm-shifting to be important. The accumulation of small breakthrough ideas matters, too. She stressed that companies need to pay attention to both the "big I" and the "little i" if they want to build a truly progressive culture.
I agree. In fact, Seven Step's genesis was a small idea that quickly grew into something quite big. Seven Step knows well how much the "little i" matters.
We believe that the accumulation of "little i's" can be much more powerful than the rare "big I." In baseball terms, we believe in winning by getting on base as frequently as possible. Homeruns certainly have their place, but relying on homeruns exclusively isn't a winning strategy. Of course, homeruns with men on base is the surest path to victory of them all. The same is true in prioritizing your quest for innovative ideas, both small and large. It's important to get on base.
The other advantage to paying attention to smaller-scale innovation is that it typically doesn't involve incremental cost or resources, at least at the onset. This is important, given the budget constraints many companies face today. According to PwC's 15th Annual 2012 Global CEO Survey, 31 percent of CEOs said they weren't able to innovate effectively due to resource constraints. I wonder how many of that 31 percent were thinking only of "the big-I," and the costs that are involved in that? Would they have been so pessimistic had they been thinking of the (often free) benefits available via smaller-scale innovation?
All companies can focus more effectively on "little-i innovation" by creating better ways to mine the ideas that probably already exist in their teams. Here are a few simple suggestions:
- Monthly ideation forums: Have teams meet once a month to exclusively discuss new ideas.
- Recognition strategies: To foster an ongoing innovative mindset, create monthly or quarterly awards for the best new ideas. Make sure to reward the small ideas as well as the big ones.
- Twenty percent rule: Daniel Pink's bestseller "Drive" talks about the success companies like Zappos and others have had in building an innovative work culture. He suggests that executives encourage their staff to dedicate 20% of their time each week to looking for new ways to improve the company. By structuring this commitment and giving people the license to pursue their ideas, the innovation engine goes into full steam.
Innovation is not an event; it's mindset. Build a culture where innovation — of every size — is always on tap and you'll guarantee your organization always stays ahead of the competition.