# 610 Innovative Leader Volume 14, Number 1 January-March 2005
Small Ideas, Big Payoffs: How to turn workers’ small
ideas into big results
Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder are management consultants (www.ideasarefree.com)
and educators and co-authors of Ideas Are Free: How the Idea
Revolution Is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations
(Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2004.)
Several years ago, we gave a talk about managing ideas to a group of business leaders. As we began to discuss the importance of small ideas, the CEO of a well-known computer equipment maker bluntly interrupted us.
“I think I speak for all of us when I ask you to talk about what we can do to get big ideas—the kind of blockbuster innovations that transform the terms of competition. That’s what we’re really interested in.”
Who doesn’t loves big, dramatic ideas? In fact, the bigger and sexier the ideas, the more we’re drawn to them. So it’s not surprising that when business leaders, such as that well-meaning CEO, think about promoting ideas, they envision going after the home runs—the super-sized breakthroughs that promise fame and fortune. Yet in their eagerness to strike gold, they aim for the wrong thing and overlook what will help them most. The best source of big ideas is small ideas.
How small ideas lead to big things
A small idea is often the germ of a bigger idea.
That’s because big problems and opportunities frequently manifest themselves through a host of smaller signs or symptoms—each one of which might be seen by different people in different places at different times. So what might seem to be a small idea could in fact be addressing a single facet of a much larger issue.
Consider a “small” idea from a worker at Monrovia, one of the country’s largest wholesale nurseries.
Much of the work at Monrovia involves transplanting plants into increasingly larger pots to support their growth—a process known as “canning.” The soil, which is specially formulated for each kind of plant, is kept in huge piles outside the canning shed.
Whenever it rains, the canning job becomes extremely unpleasant. The soil contains a healthy dose of manure, which, when wet, turns acidic and noxious. Not only does the soil smell awful, it collects under workers’ fingernails and irritates their skin. Moreover, it becomes very heavy and sticky, causing workers’ hands to hurt in a few short hours.
The worker’s idea? Buy a large tarp to cover the piles of soil whenever it rains. Easy enough. The idea was quickly approved, with the worker praised for his morale-boosting suggestion. What no one anticipated, however, was the consequences of the idea for the plants themselves.
When plants are canned in dry soil, they grow and thrive. In wet soil, though, the yield drops dramatically—sometimes as low as 60%. The soil cakes when it dries in the hot sun, making it much more difficult for the growing roots to penetrate it. The soil also clumps, leaving pockets of air beneath the surface that expose the roots and prevent them from absorbing water and nutrients.
In other words, whenever it rained, Monrovia would unknowingly enter a low-yield phase. Because the plants died gradually, and at different rates in different places, absolutely no one at the company realized what was happening.
With Monrovia’s canning lines transplanting up to 2,700 plants per hour and, after a heavy rainfall, working for numerous hours with wet soil, the worker’s idea saved the company a huge amount of money.
Most problems and opportunities cut across organizational lines and manifest themselves through multiple symptoms—many of which can be quite subtle. No one can know who is going to spot which symptom first or how he’ll propose to address the symptom.
The bottom line? The smallest idea may very well be a partial response to a bigger problem or opportunity. Thus, whenever a worker offers an idea—no matter how small—managers should stop and ask three questions:
Question No. 1: Where else in the company can this idea be used?
A single, small idea can be used in many other places, ultimately turning it into a big idea. Yet the opportunity will be missed unless somebody asks where else the idea can be used.
Consider a “small” idea from an appliance salesman at one of the country’s largest retailers.
Delivery crews were reporting that refrigerators often didn’t fit through the doorways at customers’ homes. Crews struggled with the refrigerators for a while—often damaging them, as well as the doorways, in the process—before boxing them back up and returning them to the warehouse.
Nationwide, the problem was costing the retailer millions of dollars. In addition to paying the delivery crews for failed deliveries, the company had to mark down all those damaged appliances. Worse yet, it was losing customers and sales.
The salesman’s solution? Cut a piece of string to the length of the appliance’s critical dimensions and staple it to the customer’s receipt. Then simply ask the customer to use the string to check the doorways and to call immediately if there’s a problem.
The idea was adopted by the salesman’s co-workers, as well as by several other stores in the region. Still, if the retailer had had a companywide process for communicating such good ideas, it could have leveraged the salesman’s suggestion at more than 2,000 locations. Because it didn’t, the company squandered more than 90% of this idea’s huge potential.
Question No. 2: What other ideas does this idea suggest?
When used as stepping stones, small ideas can expose larger problems and opportunities. Thus, every small idea should be eyed as a possible clue to a bigger one.
Consider a “small” idea from a worker at Grapevine Canyon Ranch, a resort in the high desert of southeastern Arizona.
Since Grapevine attracts a significant number of German guests each year, the worker, who spoke German, suggested that he translate the resort’s brochures into German. The idea was well-received and quickly implemented, even leading to the creation of a German version of the resort’s Web site.
Yet suppose the idea had been explored for other possibilities. The worker had stepped forward because he knew German. But what about French? Spanish? Japanese?
If the idea had been fully explored, it could have triggered a meaningful examination of the resort’s posture toward international guests. From special cuisine and services to language classes for workers, the possibilities were enormous. The worker’s single, small idea was his response to a much bigger opportunity—an opportunity of which he saw only a piece.
Question No. 3: What are the patterns in this idea?
Significant problems and opportunities can give rise to multiple small ideas, with the connection between them often showing up in patterns.
Consider the “small” ideas presented by two workers in an idea meeting at a national marketing company.
One worker pointed out that the company was paying too much for office supplies. While a local supplier was giving the firm a discount, the worker knew that prices were significantly lower elsewhere.
A few minutes later, another worker reported that she and a co-worker had rented separate cars on a recent business trip, with the co-worker paying twice as much for the same car from the same rental company. The reason? While her co-worker got a corporate discount, she had AAA. She suggested the company buy a corporate AAA membership, which would not only save money, but be a nice perk for employees.
Both ideas were useful enough on their own. But together, they pointed to a potentially big problem: The company’s purchasing department might need a wake-up call.
Had only one of the ideas come up, the problem might not have been so obvious. Rushing purchasing department workers off to some negotiation-skills training would have been an overreaction. But what if poor purchasing practices did underlie the issue? It’s easy to see how two small ideas, coming within a few minutes of each other, could be a clue to a much bigger opportunity. If management had been actively looking for patterns amongst workers’ ideas, they might have easily flagged the problem before it cost the company lots of money.
Despite the heroic lore of invention, a big idea rarely comes in a single, flash-of-brilliance moment. It starts as a smaller idea—or a series of smaller ideas—that requires exploration and development. That’s why mining worker’s small ideas—starting with three simple yet significant questions—is the best way to come up with the next big idea.