Micro vs Macro Innovation


Innovation: it's (still) a hot topic these days. For years, we've been talking about how to foster innovation and best practices. If you've researched articles like I have, then you may have found a tug-of-war between two schools of thought: focus on small innovation (micro-innovation) versus focus on big innovation (macro-innovation). As a refresher, I made a plug for small with a three steps to micro innovation article back in 2013 as a supplement to innovating bazooka ideas.

In summary, I disagree that we need one versus the other and here's why.

Innovation is credited for being the biggest driver of growth in the last decade. But a question still remains: what approach of innovation contributed the most to this growth? Was it the millions of smaller scale micro-innovations or the big, cataclysmic innovations that allowed a few to sky-rocket forward?

What is innovation anyway?

Sometimes we get bogged down in what we think is innovation and not the actual definition of the word. Let's put it to rest once and for all with the true definition of the word directly from the pages of Merriam-Webster:

Definition of innovation:
1: the introduction of something new
2: a new idea, method, or device: novelty

Let's take note that there's no mention of scale, impact or complexity behind the definition. Simply put, it's something new. Period. Ok, we're ready to move on now.

Micro-Innovation or Macro-Innovation?

So which is better: small innovations or big innovations? The thing is, we're kind of asking the wrong question here. We shouldn't be weighing big versus small. What we should be asking is whether we're innovating at all. Ironically, it's the thought-process around this same "big versus small" dilemma that becomes our biggest roadblock.

When we value big innovation, we're likely to set aside smaller innovations because their potential seems to be limited. On the other hand, when we're too focused on small innovations, we might miss opportunities for disruptive changes because they seem overwhelming or we simply don't see them as our nose is too focused somewhere else.

See where I'm going with this? When you're too attached to one versus the other, you back yourself into a corner.

Failing too slow, or too fast?

There's another trap we tend to fall into when we think big innovation versus micro innovation. When we think small improvements, we relate it to a concept that's been explained by this famous phrase: Fail Early, Fail Small. In other words, try something and if it doesn't give you the results you want, move on, and do the next idea quickly. In most cases, this is a viable concept because it prevents a company from investing too much in a large failing idea. But what about the flip side?

Sometimes bigger, longer-term projects don't achieve expected results in the short-term. If we were to apply the Fail Early, Fail Small concept on this situation, an innovation that could bring a lot of value in the long-term gets canned within the first few iterations in favor of smaller innovations that work short-term, but not long-term. Also, the bazooka innovation approach is a hit and miss, very hard, and depends a lot on creativity, timing, luck, and guts.

So, there's micro-innovation and macro-innovation. What about midi-innovation? The approach in the middle. Sometimes we need something more than incremental improvements, but don't have the patience and timing needed for the big awesome killer solution. For some business cases it's more of something in between. 


Innovation is a sliding scale or a Winding path

Ultimately, the key to success doesn't lie on one end of the spectrum or the other, but rather on a constant stream of innovations all along a sliding scale that goes from micro innovations to earth-shattering ones. As you move along the path towards bigger innovations, it gets harder although the payoff can be great. But, a thousand micro-innovations add up to a lot of forward movement. Then some mid-sized ideas add some heft to value wins while working on that one killer idea to leapfrog the competitors. Altogether, the business moves forward with good health.

If your company’s culture is aware of this sliding scale and it gets everyone to try new things at every level, you will see lots of successes at the left end of the scale, a few in the middle, and possibly one big high-five at the right end.

What you don’t want is a culture that thinks the big massive innovation wins are done by someone else in the firm and everyone else is too entrenched with daily fires to think about small and consistent improvements.

One way to start evolving your company culture towards these ideas is to include the think-out-of-the-box steps in all of your organization's business and project processes. At PieMatrix, I'm always thinking of ways to help our customers add action steps in their processes and execution tools to continuously foster change for the better, big or small.


Written by Paul Dandurand

Photos by Anna Samoylova and Justin Luebke