Effective Innovation Isn’t About Asking One Big Question—It’s Asking a Lot of Small Ones

woman looking up and thinking on grey wall background

3M and Google are innovative leaders for a reason: They encourage all employees to work toward small goals.                                                          

Carter Liebscher|
February 26, 2020

From laypeople to industry insiders, everyone believes that innovation begins and ends with a grand, sweeping idea. A motion to completely change one industry overnight, disrupting industries one after the other like a row of dominoes.

Instead, we should think of innovative ideas as darts on a cork board. Some will hit the bullseye dead-on, some will hit farther away, but all garner points for the thrower.

This approach to corporate innovation is often referred to as incremental innovation, introducing the market to new products by improving on existing ones piece-by-piece. According to Innovation Leader, 49% of surveyed companies focused on incremental innovation over adjacent (28%) and transformational (23%). This is a safe and logical strategy, but too often companies admire even small ideas and don’t actually act on them.

Small ideas beget grand ideas, and, in some cases, small ideas are grand ideas.

You likely know about the “prime” examples: Amazon Prime was a suggestion from a self-acclaimed “one-click” addict engineer, the Post-it was an accidental result from an adhesive experiment. The idea of a small, happy accident is more attractive than the continuous, hard work it takes to instill a creative, entrepreneurial spirit on all of your employees.

One engaging, effective method to do so is the 20% Project, an innovation initiative started by 3M (yes, the parent company of Post-it) and adopted by giants like Google.

As the name suggests, the 20% Project asks employees (or students) to spend 20% of their time on personal projects. This offers creative freedom and inspires interdepartmental collaboration—and, of course, the potential for the next big product.

Everyone finds common ground and feels closer as a company after side projects. Because the teams are intentionally cross-functional, [you] end up with ideas that never would have come about in a typical workday environment.

Adam Robinson, “Want to Boost Your Bottom Line? Encourage Your Employees to Work on Side Projects,” Inc.

No matter what industry you’re in, you and your employees can benefit from tackling big solutions by asking small questions.

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