Watching BBC Sports Personality of the Year left us pondering the great sporting achievements of 2012; not least how Bradley Wiggins – a mod from Kilburn – managed to lift the Tour de France and then win Olympic gold just a week or so later. Can these successes teach us anything we can apply to innovation? The answer turns out to be, it was no big deal.
In fact it was lots of ‘small deals’: hours spent making minor adjustment to details like cadence, distance per pedal stroke, careful planning of not just the race itself but the time between legs, and meticulous monitoring of training. All of these things (and many more) helped add the small percentage points that in the end resulted in a significant win for Wiggo. Proving the adage that, to appropriate Al Pacino’s words from ‘Any Given Sunday’, ‘It’s all a game of inches’.
This links to one of Rory Sutherland’s TED talks. In his typically witty, yet insightful style he points out we spend a lot of time thinking about the big (often expensive) things that can have a big impact, but too little time thinking about the small things that can have a big impact. Indeed if you want to call the former ‘strategy’, there isn’t even a word for the latter.
So if layering on lots of small improvements can make a big difference, why does innovation continue to put so much of its focus on uncovering the one big breakthrough? Why aren’t we satisfied with making everything just a little bit better? After all, top tennis players win championships on tiny advantages, not because they suddenly find a way to hit the ball twice as fast as their opponent. The England cricket team has just triumphed in India by being a little bit better across the field, not because they start hitting every ball for six. But in innovation too often we look down our noses at such incremental improvements and demand something that offers more excitement and the promise of greater glory – yet with great risk and no doubt significant cost.
Indeed in co-creation we regularly find that consumers building comprehensive ideas with incremental changes to packaging, naming, language and design – rather than seeking out one big change. So next time someone comes to you with a way to make your product a little better, don’t dismiss it, instead think on how lots of small improvements could end up with you lifting the trophy. It may not be big, but it could be very clever.