Amazing but true: Small thinking can emerge (like relentless weeds in a garden), even when the subject is as big as innovation. And when leaders think small, they cannot expect big results.

Based on my observations of leaders (spanning a variety of industries), leaders can fall into the trap of small thinking in 5 main ways. These ways include the who, what, when, how, and (and even) why of innovation.



Small thinking about the Who

Leaders are thinking small when they think that innovation is just for the executive suite, R&D department, head office, engineering, some corporate innovation group, or some giant tech company. Leaders can and should expect innovation to occur deeply and widely in their own organizations.

I have seen many instances of great ideas coming from deep within an organization. Field-level initiatives can often be very valuable and come with added benefits of built-in buy-in because the ideas were generated locally, not imposed from a distance.

Leaders also need to make sure that innovation is expected broadly within the organization. While some parts of the organization are obviously critical to innovation (like operations or engineering), other not-so-obvious functions (like safety, quality, or HR) can make substantial contributions.

Leaders need to make sure they do not they do not let small thinking about who should innovate sideline themselves or allow it to sideline others. What would be possible if your organization dramatically increased participation in its innovation processes?


Small thinking about the What

Leaders are thinking small if they just think that innovation is about new inventions. I am glad when researchers invent new lasers or discover new gene therapies, but innovation is about applied creativity, not just invention. Carvana (the online car retailer) didn’t invent selling cars but they did apply technology to do it in a novel way. Republic Services (a large waste management company) takes the gas generated from its landfills to run its truck fleets in California.

What would be possible if you and your team took a broader approach to thinking about what constitutes innovation?


Small thinking about the When

Innovation is not an event. It must be constant and not something to be deferred until we are not busy. Leaders cannot defer innovation and expect to be successful any more than investors can defer investing and expect to have a good retirement.

What would happen if Apple or Intel “took a break” from innovating? What is Netflix stayed content with merely optimizing a CD distribution business? For many organizations, the effects of not innovating are not so immediately obvious, but they can be just as real and serious as for the “tech titans.”

Leaders thinking they are too busy to innovate should rethink their priorities. Just because a company is doing well, does not mean they can lose their entrepreneurial hutzpah. There are too many examples of companies that became irrelevant because they took their foot off the pedal.

What is getting in the way of you innovating right now? Whatever it is address it and get back to into a discipline of raising the bar consistently.


Small thinking about the How

Leaders can think small about how innovation is done in the first place. Of course, we need to expect key breakthroughs through a formalized R&D process. But great ideas can come from anywhere and at any time. Therefore is it critical that leaders at all levels be able to be skilled at handling ideas that come their way. They need to be adept at not just screening ideas out, but also be adept at screening ideas in.

Do you really think even great successes like Amazon’s PillPack service were perfect as initially presented?

Many ideas that come across the desk of a leader may be half-baked. Not all ideas are stellar as presented. They will likely need some work and some development. The leaders that simply dismiss ideas out of hand, have an incredibly stifling effect on innovation. It takes guts for most people to make suggestions and when those ideas are not heard, people will be much less likely to make suggestions in the future.

What would be possible if leaders at every level of your organization were adept at interacting with the ideas of their team in a way that promoted healthy debate around ideas that left people feeling good about the process (even if their idea was not pursued)?


Small thinking about the Why

Leaders can also think small if they are simply thinking about innovation as just as a matter of survival. Innovation is bigger than that. It is about thriving.

When we make the case for the urgency for innovation, it is easy to think about the cautionary tales like Sears, Toys ‘R Us, FTD Florist, or Kodak—once innovative companies that struggled with change. But innovation also has an incredibly invigorating effect on organizations. People want to work at innovative places like Google, Amazon, or GoDaddy. Innovative cultures are more fun and have an outsize impact in their communities.

If you were 20 or 50% more innovative, what would that mean to your organization this in the short term or medium term? Would it be a more attractive place to work? Would you have more fun?

In his writings on innovation, Peter Drucker warned that mere optimization is a lot riskier than truly innovating. And just like there is risk in getting cheap at the wrong time, we need to be careful that we are not thinking small at the wrong time. Especially about something as big and as important as innovation.


(For more ways to make innovation actionable in your organization, contact me directly to schedule a consult or get the ebook Ridiculously Innovative )