When It Comes To Innovation, Small Is Beautiful

Big companies are increasingly turning to smaller innovation teams to gain a competitive edge.
CEO, Small Business Trends LLC
December 28, 2011

Large corporations increasingly emulate small businesses, becoming more nimble and responsive by taking advantage of technologies like social media and cloud computing. Those qualities have been key advantages for entrepreneurs.

It can be a challenging time to run a small business. As big companies chip away at the factors that differentiate small businesses in the marketplace, it’s more important than ever to hold onto our competitive edge. That’s why I found a recent Harvard Business Review article on the trend of big companies turning to smaller innovation teams very thought-provoking.

“Innovation initiatives that were once handled by dozens a decade ago are now run by only handfuls,” writes Michael Schrage. He mentions Google, Facebook and Apple among the leading innovators that swear by the power of tiny teams. The trend is not just with tech companies. Global pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline now regularly relies on teams of as few as eight people.

Eight people may sound like a lot to a small-business owner. But hearing that big companies are thinking small is news that should spur you to action. Why? Because when it comes to innovation, small companies still have an edge that big business is trying to replicate.

Conventional wisdom says that the more people you have in the innovation process, the better. The theory is that everyone from your mailroom clerk to the CEO should be part of your brainstorming sessions. The Internet facilitates crowdsourcing, where you seek the opinions of customers, prospects and complete strangers online.

Crowdsourcing has expanded the virtual brainstorming session to practically infinite numbers.

Neither of these tactics should be discarded. And getting more people involved in innovation is not a bad thing. Every brain in your business needs to be engaged in thinking more creatively. But by keeping your core team small, you’ll stay more nimble, holding onto one of your biggest advantages as a small business.

It’s great to pull in a more points of view, whether through a focus group, your frontline employees or a crowdsourced group. And you may need to enlist outside forces (a manufacturer or an IT team) to make your innovations a reality. But pull in those outsiders as needed. Don’t make them part of your core team.

Keeping your core team small while involving outside help when you need it gives you the advantages of a small business as well as of a big corporation. You can enlist vendors, manufacturers and independent contractors without committing to full-time employees or enlarged office or manufacturing space. Outsourcing to independent contractors is the wave of the future, and innovation is no different.

By keeping your core team small, you build team spirit, show your “innovation leaders” that their contributions are valued and give them a clearer sense of their purpose.

We’ve all been involved in projects that illustrated the saying “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Don’t let your innovation efforts get burned by too many cooks. Think like Google, Apple and Facebook: Keep it small.