Innovation is Smaller Than it Looks

Have you flexed your tiny idea muscles lately?

Most people believe that successful businesses are based on one big, game-changing idea. This is good for mythology. It also makes for a much easier narrative for a magazine article or a biopic.

We tend to think of companies like Facebook and Uber like this:

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But the reality usually looks a lot more like this:

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That’s why it's hard for entrepreneurs to execute on other people's ideas, even when they're good. They don't just need one big idea. They need the ability to continuously generate (and execute) many tiny ideas.

In a recent post on idea generation, former Y Combinator president Sam Altman contends that "having ideas is among the most important qualities for a startup founder to have—you will need to generate lots of new ideas in the course of running a startup."

How the biggest innovators think small

Ridesharing was a huge, game-changing idea. But back in 2009, Uber wasn't the only company to have the idea. The differentiator was simple: they had an uncompromising leader and a core team that generated and executed on countless tiny ideas. They established themselves as a high-end black car service until they reached scale, at which point they launched a ground campaign with teams in every city localizing everything from how drivers were onboarded to how much a ride would cost. Leadership stood behind the idea of variable pricing, weathering PR storms around surge until people understood the concept. They hired Obama’s campaign manager to reinvent global campaigns, enlisted riders to help fight its political battles with hashtags like #CAlovesUBER, and showed up to offices with ice cream and puppies to build goodwill. When the competition heated up, they tapped into existing driver communities, streamlined their driver app so you didn’t need command of English or even the ability to hear to use it, and lured Lyft drivers with free car washes and healthy referral bonuses. The list goes on.

The effect of tiny ideas becomes clearer when we think about generic ideas. On the surface, there is very little that is game-changing about a coffee chain. But while everyone was trying to cut costs, Starbucks made their baristas partners and gave them benefits you’d expect of a desk-bound executive. They focused on a relaxed in-store experience—couches and free wifi—instead of cutting corners and cheaper coffee. They opted for day-in-the-life documentaries of store communities rather than outdoor advertising.  

Here’s the point. You don’t need to be working in an entirely new space or have endless coiffers to disrupt and innovate. Any business can become exceptional if it masters careful execution of tiny ideas.

When breaking bad is a good idea

We rarely work on our ability to come up with ideas except when we absolutely need them. In an emotionally raw piece, James Altucher writes, "the way to have good ideas is to get close to killing yourself. It’s like weightlifting. When you lift slightly more than you can handle, you get stronger.” It’s very Walter White, but “if you destroy your life, you need to come up with ideas to rebuild it. When you cut yourself open, you bleed ideas.”

As a way to channel this in your daily life, Altucher recommends coming up with ten ideas around a given theme. I’ve tried this, with mixed results. I find it much more useful to take a look at a narrow slice of my work life and spend time generating ideas for a specific project:

  • What are ten different things that could go in a specific section of this landing page?
  • What are ten different things I could talk about at my all-hands meeting?
  • What are ten different ways we could improve the onboarding process for employees?

If I give it 30 minutes, it’s rare that I don't come up with a number of ideas that could lead to clear improvements for our business.

Why group brainstorming makes ideas weak

Even my ninth-grader knows group work doesn’t lead to very good ideas. Social dynamics usually lead to a very narrow band of ideas, preventing us from exercising our muscle for tiny ideas. We usually end up with some middle-of-the-road solution no one really wants but everyone can live with, or defaulting to the ideas of whoever is in power.

Sharing your ideas with friends can be helpful, but it honestly depends on your friends. Here's Sam Altman again:

"The best ideas are fragile; most people don’t even start talking about them at all because they sound silly. Perhaps most of all, you want to be around people who don’t make you feel stupid for mentioning a bad idea, and who certainly never feel stupid for doing so themselves.

“Stay away from people who are world-weary and belittle your ambitions. Unfortunately, this is most of the world. But they hold on to the past, and you want to live in the future."

I have found that idea generation is an exercise best done alone, like journaling.

Where to flex your idea muscles

The act of idea generation is meaningless unless you also follow through with constant execution. Depending on the size of your company or your role as an employee, your idea sphere has constraints. It’s frustrating to generate ideas that you have neither the power nor the resources to execute. But it’s still an important exercise: you’ll find yourself in situations where you can persuade others to buy into a huge idea, even if you don't have the power to execute.

However, the vast majority of the time, it is important to focus your energy on ideas that you can follow through on. By focusing on ideas that are within the constraints of your power and resources, your idea muscle gets stronger. Max out on the weights you can lift. By executing on these ideas, your sphere will grow. If that's not the case at your job, it's probably time to leave.

What’s the big idea?

Big ideas change the world, but they depend on the generation and execution of thousands and thousands of tiny ideas. The best entrepreneurs are idea generation machines. They generate every day, often by themselves, in make-or-break moments, and they follow through. It doesn’t make for very entertaining movies or biographies, but it’s the muscle behind every big innovation.



Sandeep: Tell me a bit about the early part of your career.

Tom: I spent a decade helping to build start-ups focused on application and database software. This was where I learned how to sell and do business development. I was fortunate to be part of one company going public and another being sold to IBM.

Sandeep: What is something you learned during this time that helped you with consulting?

Tom: I began to appreciate how different customers achieved varying levels of success with the same foundational technology. This made me understand just how critical getting your team and process right can be.

Sandeep: This is something I only came to appreciate years into consulting, especially after the sale of my first consultancy to Capital One.I saw teams in different parts of the company trying to solve challenges like real-time messaging. Same corporate culture, same technology, same internal support mechanisms. Night and day outcomes.

Tom: We saw a lot of the same thing after selling our practice to EMC (sold to Dell in 2015). This is probably the thing I'm most proud of when it comes to the teams I've helped to build: the ability to perform well in a variety of contexts, sometimes in ways that inspires the client team to up their game as well.

Sandeep: Yes. It's particularly cool to see your team succeed in individual ways after an skills definitely translate into the corporate environment.

Tom: Totally. We have people who've stayed on at Dell and risen up the ranks, while others took the opportunity to become successful executives at other Fortune 100 companies....or to start their own agencies and startups.

Sandeep: We've both been around a while. My first consulting project was a Y2K thing for Cisco back in 1998. You've been around a little longer than that :). How do you think consulting has changed most during the past five years?

Tom: I think because there is so much infrastructure available now, consulting has become more delivery and outcome-oriented. A better blend of strategic and tactical. Public Cloud has also enabled velocity to increase at a pace unfathomable 5 years ago.

Sandeep: What has stayed the same?

Tom: It's still mostly about people. People who thrive on change and are focused on their personal and professional development. I love that this has not and will not's what I love about consulting.

Sandeep: I know you're adjusting your work style to COVID. You're still a dude who clearly prefers to drive an hour for a socially-distanced hike or outdoor meeting over Zoom any day of the week :) But personal styles aside, what is specifically compelling about a remote agency during the era of COVID?

Tom: Kunai has been remote for years, which gives them an inherent advantage. There is something about the communication and management styles that just works in a way that other organizations are still figuring out.

Sandeep: Yeah, I think what a lot of people fail to realize is that remote work isn't just office work over Zoom. it's an entirely new paradigm. There needs to be an understanding for asynchronous efficiency...and this just takes time and effort to develop. How do you approach remote work and family? What are you learning about separating work and personal time?

Tom: No matter what the form of interaction, Focus. Be present. Quality over quantity. The best weeks are the weeks where I proactively schedule work and personal time. Neil (Kunai's Head of Delivery) shared a great quote with me "With discipline comes freedom." When I am proactively addressing the majority of my professional and personal commitments, I find I earn a little flexibility. A little freedom.

Sandeep: Tell us about a business hero of yours that I may not have heard of before.

Tom: Paul O'Neill is someone you may not know. His work in both the public and the private sector created a profound impact

Sandeep: We are both over forty years old :). How have you learned how to work smarter during the past decade or so? What do you wish you knew about consulting when you were 25 that you know now?

Tom: Consultants want to make lasting change. Lasting change is often not the act of a single person. Today I work much harder bringing others along on the journey.

Sandeep: Last question. What are you doing here? :) Why join a small consulting company this late in your career when you could have a cushy job somewhere else?

Tom: I love a good challenge personally and professionally. When I turned 40, I decided I would run a 10K every Thanksgiving weekend and try to have my finishing time be less than my age. With the exception of one year where I did not run due to a health issue, I have met the goal. I also recently completed the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike race. So, I guess I'm here because I'm a glutton for punishment :) Jokes aside, our customers have a job to do and I intend to put Kunai in a position to execute flawlessly on their behalf. I love committing jointly to audacious goals for our customers and our business.

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