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Innovation11.14.14

Thinking Small Leads to Big Success

Entrepreneurs of inventions such as the shark deterrent wetsuit started small, but results were huge.

Conversations about innovation are everywhere: in magazines and newspapers, conference rooms and coffee shops.

But where does innovation come from and how can its pace be sped up? How can companies innovate to create competitive advantages? How can cities encourage a culture of entrepreneurship? How do we democratize innovation for younger and more diverse segments of the population?

This discussion is a valuable one, but there are simply too many buzzwords and too little time to digest the nuances. At a basic level, society will create more opportunities for entrepreneurs and promote innovation when we have a simpler and more inclusive conversation.

Opening up this dialogue starts with changing the way we describe it. Our relationship with innovation sits squarely at the intersection of how we evaluate progress, personal fulfillment, reward, and risk.

Unfortunately, we tend to have a pretty binary way of categorizing fluffy things we can’t pin down semantically, like happiness or risk. The latter, in particular, is usually depicted either as a horrible eventuality that should be avoided and hedged against, or an opportunity for great — nay, exponential — reward. In both cases our expectations, and in turn our actions, hinge on scale — a “go big or go home” paradigm.

Imagine two lines sharing a point of origin and extending outward indefinitely in the same direction. Without disruption, the lines will be inseparable, but just a minuscule change creates two distinct tracks that diverge ever further as they advance.

Therein lays the opportunity of the small: a seemingly tiny shift, reassessment, or investment can fundamentally change the trajectory of a project, an idea, a community.

Great rewards can come from smaller risks and smaller disruptions, and they are worth considering, implementing and learning from. Fostering entrepreneurs-and-innovators-at-large necessitates making these very concepts more approachable and more representative along a continuum of size and impact.

The value of lesser interventions has been proven in the traction of micro-finance, the myriad ideas turned fruitful through crowdfunding, and the success of decentralized entities such as the Awesome Foundation and Quirky.

Often, history’s most transformative inventions were the result of incremental and cumulative progress, not an isolated spark. Unfortunately, we have not fully incorporated this mindset across contemporary industries, forums and governments. We have yet to fully internalize that not every great idea need be a radical departure from the status quo and not every successful solution must be gargantuan.

For innovation to become more ingrained across our societies, we should stop looking for nails to be driven home with a Thor-scale hammer and start looking for things to nudge along, connect and tweak.

Along the same vein, we should all repeat this until we believe it: innovation is just as powerful when it comes from “translation” as from “invention.” Adapting a solution from another society, another industry, another moment in time is not plagiarism; it is the creative application of lessons learned to new problems.

When we stop thinking of this as shameful borrowing or as taking a disrespectful shortcut, we will uncover a vast bank of examples to pilot, ideas to consider, products to amend. If X has worked well in a particular context, we should be open to applying it elsewhere or utilizing some of its attributes to create Y. Here’s a great example: the shark-deterrent wetsuit.

Thinking and speaking about innovation as the product of translation as well as invention not only makes the process more accessible to the average person but also it belies a belief that transformative concepts do not exclusively derive from rare kinds of brilliance, and can be the result of ordinary individuals paying attention and acting on those observations.

Changing our vocabulary and point of reference won’t get us far if the majority of us remain ill-equipped and uneducated about how to actually tackle the innovation process.

As things stand, our educational systems are by and large failing to create an agile, global and creative community of individuals. Among many useful skills and some easily forgotten ones, we learn linear models, memorize and commit to a handful of equations and paradigms at our schools and workplaces. Unprepared to innovate and thrive, we are taken aback when the world we thought was a scripted sitcom looks more like a rotating improv variety act.

If provided with snacks, I could ramble about this topic for hours, so I will limit myself to two points. First, if we hope to create more opportunities for innovation, we must learn to think systemically; secondly, we must design around actual problems and people.

None of the challenges we encounter, the changes we wish to implement, the cities we live in, and the markets we want to break into are independent of one another. In addition, they are most certainly not stuck in time.

On the contrary, the situations we face as individuals, institutions and governments are dynamic, chaotic and driven by complex interactions. If this sounds horribly confusing, it is, but the only thing worse than our complicated reality is the danger of ignoring it. In fact, when we don’t think in systems, we habitually miscalculate, misunderstand, misalign, mis-remember, make mistakes, incur unforeseen costs, and cause an inordinate number of unexpected externalities.

On the other hand, solutions should be based on dialogue and – excuse the overused term — truly people-centered design. Across every sphere — private enterprise, not-for-profit institutions, governments at all levels — and any topic vertical, our ideas will only become successful solutions if they respond effectively and efficiently to the needs of our stakeholders. The best way forward is to understand, interact with and include our customers, clients and users in a people-centered design framework around our goals.

In order to create opportunities for disruption and creativity, our pedagogical frameworks must rise to the task of teaching us the pillars of both systemic and design thinking, building our capacity to see both the forest and the trees.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the French writer and aviator, said: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Ultimately, for more people to become active participants in a global conversation on progress through innovation, they must find the conversation inspiring and exciting, but accessible and relevant.

This article originally appeared on Ideas Laboratory.

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