For Big Innovation, Think Small

Organizations trying to innovate are wired to think big. They want to make a big impact, set big goals, and talk about big plans and big successes. No one is interested in anything that appears small. At first blush, this makes sense: in order to move the needle on your P&L you need to have a big success. Small is uninteresting.

This thinking is flawed. My research on innovation has shown that a vast majority of the “big” innovations we admire started as something small. These innovations did not become big by executing on a plan to create something big: they became big by providing inspirational offerings that enhanced customer experiences. Financial rewards were not the reason for the innovation: they were the outcome—the reward to a company that increased societal value through innovation.

Google and Uber and Airbnb

Google started off as an academic experiment by two PhD students to understand how web pages link to each other. It wasn’t even a commercial initiative; search results were simply a byproduct of the index they created. In fact, when the founders noticed that their search results were superior to those of other search engines, they were ready to sell the company to Excite (a leading search engine of the time) for under a million dollars. Excite refused.

Of course, Google became very big, but the big didn’t happen by executing on a big strategic plan: it happened by providing a big positive change to the experience of users. And the financial rewards that followed? Generating billions through advertising revenues was not part of executing on a strategic plan: it was simply that, as the company increased its value to society, society was happy to reward the company.

Google is not alone. Uber started with three cars and the goal of providing a better service than taxis. The founders of Airbnb rented out their own loft with an air mattress and free breakfast to make extra money; they certainly had no plan to build the planet’s largest home sharing network.

The wrong kind of big

Unfortunately, most companies I come across think of big only in terms of P&L. Consequently, they are ruled by financial models and strategic plans that are filled with assumptions. Very rarely do companies pursue plans based on the how much a customer experience is altered (something I call the “experience delta”), or on products that inspire at a small scale.

This often causes companies to invest in areas that seem like they’ll have the best financial outcomes based on their assumption-filled plans. However, as we all know, big breakthroughs rarely come from strategic plans and financial models.

Worse yet, while executing the strategic plan, companies very often pass up on inspiring products or developments or ideas because they don’t appear to make a big contribution to the bottom line, or may not fit with their traditional business model. Inspiring ideas are exactly the ones you don’t want to pass on because they are the ones most likely to become word-changing innovations.

Remember that the big opportunity you are chasing may often appear as something quite small. The key is to learn to recognize the opportunities that enhance customer experiences, even in a small way. Once you start viewing innovation from the lens of the experience delta (the change in customer experience you provide) chances are high you will find the opportunities that transform your company and give you the big rewards you are looking for.

I research innovation and personal excellence and am the author of The Innovation Biome available at

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