Innovation. What do you think of when you hear this word? Perhaps something big, something monumental, along the lines of the steam engine or the iPhone. While big might be better in some instances, it’s not always what drives innovation or improves productivity. Yet, many meetings and brainstorming sessions are devoted to finding that one ‘big’ idea.

The problem: big ideas often take a lot of time to implement, and make failure expensive.  The need then: to think out of the big-idea-box and create solutions that work. Wondering how to do that? Here are a few cues to help:

  • Think small. In Ideas Are Free, authors Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder talk of how “small ideas outperform the big, dramatic ones.” Success stories demonstrate this truth. At a ranch in Arizona, housekeeping staff noticed that guests used an entire sheet of paper to exchange their contact details with each other. What if business card sized papers were placed in rooms to help guests share contact details? They’d save paper. This simple suggestion, when combined with other small ideas, raised the ranch’s customer service and productivity quotient.
  • Identify the context. Often the solution to a challenge isn’t in a novel idea. It’s in applying an old one or iterating what’s already available. What’s important here: the context of the application. Making a powerful case for the context, Scott Berkun, author and speaker on creativity, describes how hospitals improved patient safety in surgery, by over 30%. The tool they used – a simple task list, which aircraft pilots had used for years.
  • Turn the idea into a testable hypothesis. Ideas inspire debates. Hypotheses – clear definition, testing, and measurement. As Michael Sarge, a business researcher, argues, “Testable hypotheses encourage and facilitate active experimentation and learning in ways that good ideas simply cannot.” Such an approach helped a company redesign their app based on clear user responses, and not guesses or assumptions. The other advantage of testing a hypothesis: it provides data and facts to assess the effectiveness of the initial idea, and determine whether to pursue or drop it. And if the idea has to be dropped, failure is relatively cheap and fast.

Big ideas bring with them pressure to succeed. But by evaluating ideas for their merit and not size, it’s possible to ease that pressure and consider true possibilities. What other suggestions would you add to this list, to make the pursuit of ideas more rewarding?

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