What most people forget about the most game-changing innovations is that, more often than not, they satisfied some unmet basic need in a simple way. The breadth and complexity of the effect of that innovation came later, as more and more people found more and more ways to utilize that innovation to address some variation of the original need. Keeping that in mind, if you’re charged with corporate innovation, there are a lot of reasons to focus on simple, small innovations. Let’s explore!
A small solution can have a massive impact.
The perfect example of this phenomenon is the World Wide Web. According to, The Birth of the Web (wow, that was that the most meta link I’ve ever created), “The web was originally conceived and developed to meet the demand for automated information-sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world.” Pretty simple. If you authored an academic paper, and cited prior research papers, HTML and a browser made it possible to quickly access the original cited paper and all of the papers cited in that paper, etc. Hence the term, “web.”
No one intended the web to be the de facto backbone infrastructure for virtually every modern consumer experience and business transaction. That came later as untold coders, entrepreneurs and global enterprises thought of new things to connect and invented new bolt-on technologies with which to make more complex connections and transactions possible.
Small helps manage exposure to risk.
Ask any scientist about experimental design and the first thing you’ll hear out of their mouth is “controls.” Controls are how you know that what you think is contributing to the results of your experiment is actually the thing contributing to the results of your experiment. If you change too many factors at once, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to truly understand the impact of any single factor.
This is incredibly important to understand when you are evaluating and testing innovative products or experiences. By limiting the number of attributes around which you’re innovating (staying small), you’ll improve your ability to isolate and quantify underlying factors affecting desirability or adoption. Increased accuracy and specificity can only improve the confidence levels of your pro forma projections and risk assessments.
Small improves time to market.
In virtually every large organization, increased complexity of the innovation being proposed equals increased development and approval times. It makes sense. Every department that needs to make, approve or design some sort of change will be a potential source of delay. It’s not through ill will or stubbornness; it’s simply the result of increasing the number of interdependent decisions and actions required for completion.
Early on in your evaluation of any proposed innovation idea should be a full life-cycle resource assessment. How does the innovation differ in materials or labor cost? Are their operational changes that need to be made? Is there retooling required? Are there digital infrastructure or software updates or changes necessary? Does it affect distribution outlets, costs or partnerships? Try to create the corporate narrative of this new product or service coming to market. The smaller the number of players you need to invoke in your story, the sooner you’ll be likely to launch.
Small is an easier sell.
Initiating change in any enterprise takes a lot of selling. Selling the idea up to management. Selling the idea laterally to enlist the support of peers managing other departments affected by the change. And, depending on the visibility, selling the idea to every employee to ensure their buy-in and/or adoption of new language, behaviors or procedures. Small ideas, by nature, are easier to understand and consequently easier to encapsulate into actionable sound bites. Simpler messages are easier to analogize. They are easier to evaluate in the abstract.
Innovation of any size is always a win.
Regardless if your innovations are ultimately small and evolutionary, or massive and revolutionary, the most important thing for anyone responsible for driving corporate innovation should commit to is the continual drive to make the business more competitive, one small step at a time.