The announcement of Apple's iPad is turning many people's thoughts to the innovations behind big ideas. Innovations such as these play a critical role in a company's future, but companies often hinder themselves by focusing on finding the next big thing, when in reality, the next small thing might be more beneficial.
The more that employees are encouraged to think creatively and apply that creativity, the more flexible in practice and nimble in responsiveness a company becomes. When you take pressure off people to come up with a "big" idea, you encourage the creativity that can bring about incremental innovations. As a result, a new service or product offering may emerge, but it's more likely that you will optimize your operations for cost, quality, efficiency, and speed.
At its core, innovation is applied creativity. And, it is my belief since I have seen it for years is that most employees can be encouraged to be creative, if you want them to be.
How can you encourage small innovations?
Think small. The beauty of small innovations is that they focus on immediate concerns, not on finding game-changing products. Encourage your people to find a solution to a problem, or a better way of doing things.
Try posing questions: How can accounting streamline billing? How can customer service resolve issues on the phone without supervisor intervention? How can product engineers find more time to spend with customers? Using such questions will get people generating ideas. Not every idea will be brilliant, but that's the point. You want to collect ideas, refine them, and select the best for implementation.
Implement locally. Since most small innovations are limited to a department or a function, put them into action as soon as possible. If the idea does not work as expected, don't abandon it immediately — see if you can tweak it. Implementation itself can be creative and sometimes it takes several tries to make innovative ideas work as expected, or beyond expectations.
Promote widely. You need to recognize those who think of and support the innovations. Many organizations provide incentives for such efforts, from gift coupons all the way up to substantive bonuses for innovations that positively affect the entire company. The important thing is to recognize the right people, and to do it in a timely fashion.
Encouraging small innovations is only part of the management equation. Execution of the innovations is critical. No amount of applied creativity can make up for slipped deadlines, blown budgets, dissatisfied customers, or unbalanced profit and loss statements. You need to focus on the details to get things done.
You may also discover another benefit from your small innovations: tapping into the collective brainpower of your employees. They are your collaborators, and by treating them as such you make it known that you welcome their ideas and will reward them.