In Innovation, Sometimes Bigger is Better

Filed Under Innovation

Boris Pluskowski

September 2, 2014

One of the main conundrums businesses face when trying to generate new ideas, or instill a greater culture of innovation, is how wide to cast the net. This in turn leads to one of the most common business mistakes a company can make — limiting the creative process to a select few, in the belief that the company’s ‘most creative’ minds will deliver the goods.

Creativity Meets Clarity

A recent article in Marketing Week, ‘Is your brand’s workplace creative enough?’, raised questions about the optimum number of people to involve in the creative process. One contributor highlighted the benefits of keeping creative teams small, in order to keep the process streamlined and reduce the number of people who can stifle the journey of an idea. It’s true that there comes a time when a more focused group is required to ensure that a great idea has the opportunity to become reality; however, small is not always beautiful in the innovation process.

Firstly, setting up an “innovation team” that is alone responsible for ideation only serves to alienate the rest of the workforce — either because they feel undervalued, or assume they are not needed to contribute new ideas. Smaller teams can also suffer from ‘group think’, a widely accepted phenomenon drawn from the work of psychologist Irving Janis, where a subconscious desire for harmony trumps a person’s objectivity or focus on the end goal. This leads individuals to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions, resulting in a loss of creativity and independent thinking.

Widening the number of people involved who have external perspectives — such as employees not immediately connected to the project — will provide fresh view points and invaluable critiques on existing ideas. This reflects the words of Franz Johannsen, who ascertained in his book, The Medici Effect, that innovation happens at the intersection of multiple disciplines and cultures. The more people involved, the more intersections that occur, the more ideas that will form. In this regard, big businesses and enterprises are at an advantage. Small companies are often seen as better equipped to innovate than their larger rivals. However, following the logic of the Medici Effect, enterprises possess access to a larger and more diverse pool of minds, and therefore a greater number of ‘intersections’.

Bringing in the Front Line

Involving the audience closest to the problem at hand is also vital, and often neglected when opting for a small team. If you’re attempting to find innovative new ways to improve customer service, why not consult the front-line staff who interact most closely with them, or even involve the customers themselves? This approach has been taken by a number of businesses, such as Novant Health, which successfully used Mindjet’s Spigit Engage to source the opinions and ideas of thousands of front-line nurses in order to develop new ways to improve care.

Effective idea-generation is best done by capitalising on larger numbers of contributors. In today’s hyper-connected world, with the prevalence of social media and the ability to crowd-source ideas using technology, effective idea-generation is possible on even the largest of scales. That gives companies the ability to involve hundreds — or even thousands — of people in the innovation process, regardless of their role or place in the organisational hierarchy.

Once great ideas have been discovered, it’s true a smaller steering committee is necessary to execute on the best concepts so that they can become reality. But, it is only at this stage of the idea journey that small should be considered more valuable than leveraging the full breadth of your network in the search for genuine business innovation.

  • Ying Ying Shi

    Gathering ideas from a bigger number of contributors is certainly a good idea. We just need to be careful with the time allotted to ideation and the process through which this will be done to ensure the optimal results.