Three steps to micro innovation.

On the Harvard Business Review site, search "disruptive innovation" and you will find there are over 670 search results. Most of it is about being the holy grail of business success. This is nothing new. Innovation is what keeps companies thriving. When we think of innovation, many of us assume it's for the new product development team upstairs or the R&D lab in Building 3. This is where the big thinkers huddle to create game-changing products and services.

Let's call it "macro innovation". This is where our special forces come out of secrecy and smash the competition with something unexpected and incredible.

In reality, macro innovation success stories are few and far between. They are risky, hard to accomplish, and not sustainable.

There's a different kind of innovation many of us either forget about or ignore. These are the hundreds or thousands of small innovations that are begging for our attention. They can be found in all organizational departments.

Let's consider calling this "micro innovation". It's the opposite of a massive R&D undertaking.

In 2009, Dr. Atul Gawande and a few medical researchers conducted a study that found that a small change in the operating room that introduced a simple checklist reduced death rates by 40%. The short checklist were 5 things doctors needed to do when inserting central lines to avoid infection.

Dr. Gawande's list looked like this:

  1. Wash hands with soup.
  2. Clean patient's skin.
  3. Cover patient with sterile drapes.
  4. Wear a mask, hat gown, and gloves.
  5. Put a sterile dressing over insertion site after line was in.

These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. However, it was estimated that 1/3 of the time at least one of these critical steps were skipped. So, Dr. Gawande convinced the administration to make them required with authoritative monitoring by the nurses. The result? Infection rate dropped from 11% to zero, preventing 43 infections, avoiding 8 deaths, and saving the hospital about $2M!

David Champion's Harvard Business Review blog called "Small Changes Make Big Differences" expresses how great an impact a combination of relatively small changes can have. In another article, Susan Gonzalez Ruiz wrote a great post called "Micro-innovation of Small Things". This is where innovation is conducted by each and every member of an organization. And this is where each person can contribute by making small changes that drive improvements.

Imagine an organization with hundreds of thousands of processes. Now imagine most of these being improved with small creative changes over time. The sum of these incremental changes can become as powerful as the smash of the new single idea from R&D.

What's really cool is that all of us in any department can play a role with innovation. How do we get started when we're trained to realize that innovation is really hard, impossible, or scary? The R&D engineers thrive on discovery and change. The rest of us tend to hide under a rock.

Three steps to micro innovation. The following is a bottom up approach about tackling minor tweaks that can improve something on a small scale. No buy-in necessary.

  1. Acknowledge that change can be stupidly simple. Most of us working with daily business processes usually see the small gaps, weak links, and minor dysfunctions. These inadequate process components are many times repeated over and over. Look at them, even the obvious ones that we tend to ignore.
  2. Grab one tiny dysfunction by the neck and punch it. Pin point only one small part of the process and make a tweak to improve it. The smaller the innovation, the easier to slide it in without any disruption, committee review, or approval.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 one hundred times. Multiply a person's one-hundred tiny changes by the number of people in your organization and visualize the real impact it can make to your market position.

The  powerful micro-innovation multiplier can not only  make a huge difference, but it is much more sustainable than the one-off big bang from R&D. Of course, the real secret sauce is to turn this approach into your corporate culture and that takes time along with executive commitment and sponsorship. But, that's another story.

Happy innovating!